Throughout his three-year tenure as the Bishop of South Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence has maintained that parishes own their property. At a gathering of diocesan clergy Nov. 15, Bishop Lawrence announced his decision to express that belief with an action: giving quitclaim deeds to every congregation in the diocese.

The diocese’s action is a direct challenge to the validity of the Episcopal Church’s Dennis Canon, which reads, in part: “All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located.”

“For 190 years, no one imagined that parishes did not own their property, yet they were connected to the Episcopal Church through the bishop,” Lawrence said in an interview with The Living Church. “The parishes provide the bishop’s chair and the bishop brings the crozier.”

There is an “uneasy détente” between the diocese and the broader Episcopal Church, the bishop said. Tensions grew more intense after General Convention in 2009, he said. That convention approved Resolution C056, which said bishops “may provide generous pastoral response” to same-sex couples seeking the church’s blessing.

That decision gave permission to bishops to act contrary to the Episcopal Church’s canons, its prayer book, Church history and the Church’s historic teaching on marriage, the bishop said.

The bishop said he does not know whether the diocese’s challenge of the Dennis Canon will affect the allegations against him now being considered by the Disciplinary Board for Bishops. His greater concern, he said, is in preserving unity within the diocese.

“If the threat of property disputes is the only thing that holds us together, what sort of mission do we have?” he said. “Jesus gave Peter the keys to the kingdom, not the keys to the building.”

He does not believe the quitclaim deeds will make congregations more inclined to separate from the diocese.

“Frankly, the people already believe they can leave because of the All Saints’, Pawleys Island, decision” by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

Distributing the quitclaim deeds was a liberating decision, the bishop said.

As he woke up Nov. 16, after announcing the decision the previous evening, “I thought, I feel like, for the first time, I am the bishop of this diocese,” he said. “True leadership means that people follow even when they don’t have to.”

Douglas LeBlanc