SUMMERTON - St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Summerton has joined hands with dozens of other Episcopal churches statewide against The Episcopal Church to protect the diocese's real and personal property and that of its parishes, according to the Very Rev. David W.T. Thurlow, rector of St. Matthias.
Filed on Jan. 4, 2013, in South Carolina Circuit Court by several churches within the Diocese of South Carolina, along with the Trustees of the Diocese, the lawsuit asks the court for a declaratory judgement to prevent The Episcopal Church from infringing on the protected marks of the diocese, including its seal and its historical names, and to prevent The Episcopal Church from assuming the diocese's identity.
"It is beyond belief what The Episcopal Church is attempting to do," Thurlow said last week. "What it amounts to is corporate identity theft."
Thurlow said St. Matthias' participation in this legal action is necessary to protect the church and its parish buildings - erected and maintained by the families of Summerton and surrounding communities without any financial support from The Episcopal Church - from being taken over by The Episcopal Church.
"Our community is most disturbed that outside attorneys and individuals from New York, who have never lived here in the South, should have the audacity to suggest that they have any claim whatsoever to church buildings and property here in South Carolina," Thurlow said. "That The Episcopal Church is now claiming ownership of our land, that is not right."
Although the diocese has disassociated itself from The Episcopal Church, it will remain a part of the Anglican Communion, Thurlow said.
The split with The Episcopal Church has impacted the entire Episcopal Church family throughout South Carolina and the nation.
According to Thurlow, out of 71 South Carolina parishes with more than 33,000 members, 22,244 members have chosen to remain with the diocese, about 1,900 members are undecided and about 5,300 - over half from one church in Charleston - will remain with The Episcopal Church.
Over the past 10 years, The Episcopal Church has seen a double-digit decline in its membership and average attendance, he said. While at the same time, the Diocese of South Carolina has continued to grow in membership and attendance. St. Matthias' membership has doubled during the same time frame with a 79 percent increase in average Sunday attendance.
"The decline in The Episcopal Church is largely attributed to the church embracing and proclaiming a gospel contrary to the one they received," Thurlow said. "They have developed a secular world view. The Church is free to receive and preach the Gospel; it is not at liberty to revise it."
Thurlow said The Episcopal Church wants the public to believe the crux of the matter lies with issues of sexual morality.
"That is simply incorrect," Thurlow said. "The Episcopal Church wants to confuse and portray it as being all about sexual morality, but it is not simply about that. It is about the unwillingness of The Episcopal Church to remain faithful to God's word and the ancient and timeless teaching of Christ as our Church has received them, particularly in the areas of theology, morality and church polity.
"By their decision, The Episcopal Church, with a membership of 1.9 million members in the United States has chosen to walk off in a new direction apart from the overwhelming majority of the more than 80 million other members of our denomination throughout the world. We simply as a parish and diocese remain with the majority of those in our denomination and have by our disassociation with The Episcopal Church made it clear we are not willing to walk with them in error. Faith in Jesus Christ is the engine that motivates and moves us."
According to Thurlow, The Episcopal Church has spent more than $22 million on the legal action by filing at least 75 lawsuits against four dioceses and 200 congregations nationwide. Each of the lawsuits has sought to seize the property of local parishes.
Thurlow said he hopes a ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court supporting the property rights of churches will hold fast for each church involved in the lawsuit.
"A recent state Supreme Court decision found that All Saints Church of Pawley's Island was the true owner of its property and that The Episcopal Church held no interest in the church's property," Thurlow added. "This is as it should be."
Thurlow does not question whether The Episcopal Church has a right to establish its own identity and pursue its own objectives.
"The Episcopal Church has every right to embrace whatever doctrines it so chooses, and it also has a right to establish a presence in the area served by our diocese," Thurlow said, "but the Church does not have a right to use our identity. The Episcopal Church must create a new entity."
St. Matthias is united and very supportive of its diocese and Bishop Mark Lawrence.
"We are unified in our support," Thurlow said. "We're not going to let the lawsuit distract us from carrying on with our work of preaching the gospel and evangelism."
Although 75 percent of the state's diocese is united, it's still painful to watch the church split, he said.
"There are no winners," Thurlow said. "The only winner is the devil who has caused dissension in the church."