Report on the fifth day of trial from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina
Judge Goodstein’s plan to have parish evidence admitted by stipulation helped to expedite the testimony of the parish plaintiffs on Monday as they continue to present testimony in their lawsuit against local Episcopalians and the national Episcopal Church.
Over the weekend, attorneys conferred on a stipulation agreement, and finalized the details on Monday morning. Attorneys for The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, TECinSC, agreed to allow batches of documents to be admitted into evidence for the plaintiffs, so the witnesses for each parish could simply be questioned about facts in dispute. Previously, each of the plaintiffs’ attorneys were slowly leading witnesses through the process of introducing and explaining the relevance of each document.
On Monday, the court heard from 12 of the plaintiff parishes, and about half the testimony from a thirteenth, before adjourning after 5 pm. The trial resumes at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. That amount of progress compares with the three days it took the plaintiffs to give the testimony from the previous 18 parishes. Still, it leaves five more plaintiffs to be heard from. And the plaintiffs have indicated they may have additional witnesses when the parish cases conclude.
Judge Goodstein told both sides that while she has planned only two weeks for the trial, she is willing to let it continue into a third week if it is necessary for a full hearing of the case. The defense is expected to begin presenting its case when the plaintiffs’ testimony concludes.
As in previous days, the courtroom has been mostly full. Much of the space is occupied by lawyers. The breakaway group led by Mark Lawrence – usually referred to as “The Plaintiff Diocese” in court – has 43 attorneys on record as representing the former diocesan officials and the 36 parishes who joined in the lawsuit.
Testifying on Monday were Holy Cross, Stateburg; St. Paul’s, Bennettsville; St. Jude’s, Walterboro; Good Shepherd, Charleston; Church of Our Saviour, John’s Island; St. Matthew’s, Fort Motte; St. Michael’s, Charleston; St. Matthias, Summerton; Prince George Winyah, Georgetown; St. Paul’s, Summerville; St. Paul’s, Conway, and Church of the Cross, Bluffton.
Initial testimony from Christ Church, Mount Pleasant ended about 5:15 p.m. and cross examination will continue Tuesday. The remaining parishes are Holy Trinity, Charleston; Trinity, Edisto; St. John’s, John’s Island; Old St. Andrew’s, and St. Philip’s, Charleston.
Following the pattern of previous plaintiffs, much of the testimony Monday focused on the witnesses’ inability to remember any time in which their churches had ever been associated with The Episcopal Church in any way.
Witnesses for all the parishes reported that they participated in the Church Pension Fund for their clergy employees, and from time to time held policies with the Church Insurance Group. Only Episcopal churches can participate in these benefits.
Several witnesses also testified that they had served as delegates to diocesan conventions. Every three years, convention delegates vote to elect Deputies to the General Convention (governing body) of The Episcopal Church. The Rev. David Thurlow, who testified for St. Matthias, Summerton; acknowledged that he actually served as one of those Deputies, representing the diocese at the General Convention of The Episcopal Church.
The day provided some humorous moments. The witness for St. Paul’s, Bennettsville was questioned about getting the minimum number of members present to vote at a parish meeting. “We have a covered dish luncheon, and that pretty much guarantees a quorum,” he said.
Other testimony focused on more serious aspects. At St. Jude’s Walterboro, minutes of a meeting revealed that Cn. Jim Lewis told people at the parish that there was “a potential vulnerability if a parish disassociates from The Episcopal Church but is not involved in the lawsuit.” The minutes say he gave information about several additional dates for “windows” when parishes could join the lawsuit against The Episcopal Church.
Asked what the “vulnerability” was that Cn. Lewis referred to, the witness said the parish was concerned about “potentially losing our property if there were an unfavorable ruling in the lawsuit.”
Tom Tisdale, Chancellor for the continuing Episcopal diocese, asked: “That wouldn’t be able to happen if you weren’t involved in the lawsuit, would it?”
“I guess not,” the witness said.
The Rev. Shay Gaillard, rector of Good Shepherd, Charleston testified about his parish in the West Ashley area of Charleston, and answered questions about the deed to the lot the church sits on, a gift that was granted to the church on condition that it is subject to the Constitution and Canons of both the national church and the local diocese, “as now in force or may hereafter be amended.”
Church of Our Savior on Johns Island (pictured) had a similar phrase in its 1987 bylaws. Yet its rector, the Rev. Michael Clarkson, stated that “The Church of Our Savior has never disassociated from The Episcopal Church and in fact has never been a part of The Episcopal Church.”
The witness for St. Michael’s, Charleston, Ann Hester Willis, said she was a member of the diocesan Standing Committee from 2010-2103 and served as its secretary. Mrs. Willis was asked about the frequent “executive sessions” the Standing Committee took, for which no records were kept. Asked if St. Michael’s had governed itself according to the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of South Carolina, or those of The Episcopal Church, she said the parish governed itself mainly by its own bylaws. “I didn’t know that’s a requirement,” she said. “I don’t know that anyone in the leadership of St. Michael’s has ever read the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church.”
Both Mrs. Willis and another member of the Standing Committee, the Rev. Tripp Jeffords of St. Paul’s, Conway, testified that the Standing Committee participated in giving consents to the elections of bishops in the other dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Consenting to the election of bishops is a duty of Standing Committees under the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. A majority of other dioceses’ Standing Committees had to give consent before Mark Lawrence could be consecrated in South Carolina.