In trying to make sense of the trial in South Carolina (which I did not attend, but know only from the reports of those who did), I noted certain pervasive themes.
First, the trial was a clash of diametrically opposed camps. Bishop Lawrence, his parishes and his Diocese were focused on going forward with their evangelical mission; the lawsuit was a drag on their ability to do so. Bishop vonRosenberg and his Episcopal Church (USA) were obsessed with looking back – to what they viewed as a hierarchical structure from the outset; to the prerogatives of national power that are concomitant to such a structure; and especially to the power wielded collectively by the House of Bishops, and by the Presiding Bishop in their absence.
Second, the trial was a clash of legal strategies dictated by the law of South Carolina. This case came to trial against the background of the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in All Saints Waccamaw Parish v. The Episcopal Church, a case I analyzed in this earlier post. The Court held two things: first, that a religious body who followed its own procedures, and South Carolina law, in amending its governing documents could not have those amendments declared void in the absence of superior church laws or rules forbidding such amendments, and which were in place before the dispute arose; and second, that the only kind of a religious trust that could have any effect under South Carolina law was one declared in a writing signed by the owner of the property being placed in trust – and not by the national church unilaterally, in its role as a putative beneficiary of any such trust.
Both holdings were premised on the declaration that South Carolina courts were to follow “neutral principles of law” in resolving church property disputes, and not by deferring automatically to determinations made internally by church bodies or personnel who were not the “highest judicatory bodies” in that church.