Report on the sixth day of trial from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina
Some clergy in the Diocese of South Carolina were actively seeking to leave The Episcopal Church years before the 2012 action to “disassociate” and follow Mark Lawrence out of the church, a Charleston rector testified Tuesday as attorneys for The Episcopal Church and its local diocese began presenting the defense’s case.
The Rev. Dow Sanderson, Rector of Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston, said several clergy had been voicing the idea of leaving The Episcopal Church. By 2009, at least one clergy member had become weary of waiting. Fr. Sanderson recalled a memorable phone call he received from the Rev. Jeff Miller, rector of St. Helena’s in Beaufort and later president of the Standing Committee. Fr. Sanderson said Rev. Miller expressed frustration that Bishop Lawrence was not moving quickly enough, saying: “Don’t you remember we elected him to take us out of The Episcopal Church?”
Fr. Sanderson served on the Standing Committee and was its president during the time when Mark Lawrence was elected as bishop. At the final Standing Committee meeting he attended, the discussion was about changing banks for the diocesan accounts, “because if there were any disciplinary action against Bishop Lawrence, the assets of the diocese would be frozen.”
“There was a conversation about finding friendly bankers who would give us assurances that that would not happen,” Fr. Sanderson said. Later, the funds were moved; he said he did not know what bank the Standing Committee later decided to use.
Fr. Sanderson also testified about the relationship between the diocese and The Episcopal Church. After a bishop is elected, two things must happen before a consecration can go forward: A majority of the House of Bishops must give consent; and a majority of the Standing Committees of the 110 dioceses of The Episcopal Church also must give consent.
“It has always been the intention that a bishop is never elected for a diocese, but for the whole church,” Fr. Sanderson said.
Henrietta Golding, an attorney for the breakaway group, questioned Fr. Sanderson about the Constitution and Canons of the diocese and how they have been amended over the years since they were adopted in the late 18th century. Did the plaintiff diocese ever submit those proposed amendments to The Episcopal Church for approval?
No, Fr. Sanderson said. “The Constitution and Canons cannot contradict the national church constitution and canons, so there is no need to have them approved. It is implicit.”
Fr. Sanderson’s testimony – and much of the testimony the defense presented – was repeatedly delayed as lawyers for the breakaway group rose to interrupt, objecting about relevance or raising concerns about what the testimony might include. In many cases, the judge decided to hear the evidence and decide the relevance for herself.
Earlier in the day, the plaintiffs offered their final six parish witnesses, and rested their case just before the lunch break. By the end of the day, the defense had presented three witnesses, and told the court it expected a minimum of a dozen more.
Hearing that, the judge indicated she would look into making the necessary arrangements to the trial could continue into the following week if necessary. The trial will resume at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.
The first witness for the defense was Armand Derfner, a nationally renowned civil rights attorney who has argued and won five cases before the Supreme Court of the United States and is frequently asked to testify before congressional committees.
Mr. Derfner appeared as an expert witness to highlight key points in the defense’s case – topics such as:
– Fiduciary duty. Bishop Lawrence took an oath which was a condition for his becoming a bishop of the diocese. The oath included a promise to abide by the “discipline” of The Episcopal Church. “That would be an enforceable oath that could give rise to a breach of fiduciary duty,” Mr. Derfner said.
– The intent of the incorporator: whether those who incorporated the churches and the diocese were intending to establish the purpose of the corporation and whether a later bishop could seek to amend that.
– The capacity to convey property and the issue of ‘good standing.’ Whether individuals were in good standing when they took certain actions, such as issuing quit-claim deeds, would have a bearing on whether their actions were effective or not.
Alan Runyan, attorney for the breakaway group, objected frequently to Mr. Derfner being allowed to testify, complaining that it related to actions taken by individuals. “That’s the heart of it – there are no individual defendants. There are only corporate defendants. That individual conduct is just not relevant.”
Thomas S. Tisdale Jr., Chancellor for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, disagreed. “Obviously a corporation has to act through people who are acting for it,” he said. Judge Goodstein clarified that it was her role to determine how the law must be applied, but allowed the testimony.
The court also heard from Warren Mersereau, who testified for the defense about his experiences as a member of Church of Our Savior in John’s Island, one of the plaintiffs. Again, attorneys the plaintiff diocese tried to prevent the testimony. “We’re here on corporate issues, not an individual discontent person who may have been a member,” Ms. Golding said.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Mersereau was allowed to describe some of the events at the parish.
After asking to publish pro-Episcopal Church information in a newsletter, Mr. Mersereau said the rector, the Rev. Michael Clarkson, told him that at Church of Our Savior, “The policy was not to promote The Episcopal Church.” When Mr. Mersereau mailed and emailed the information to other parishioners anyway, “He told me the vestry had voted to put me under disciplinary action.”
“I was threatened with excommunication,” Mr. Mersereau said.
Mr. Mersereau testified about being one of the local Episcopalians who signed a formal complaint against Mark Lawrence. Again, the plaintiffs called the testimony irrelevant, but the judge noted, “I’ve heard lots of testimony that people acted ‘because of the treatment of Bishop Lawrence,’” she said. “In the interest of fairness, ought they be allowed to go into some of that discussion?” Finally, Mr. Mersereau was allowed to testify that he signed the complaint.
Final plaintiff testimony
Plaintiff parish testimony in the morning followed the pattern of earlier witnesses. An exception was the witness for St. John’s, John’s Island, who as a vestry member and warden spoke of the reasons behind changing the parish’s governing documents. He said they felt the property could be threatened by The Episcopal Church.
“There are some big questions in the country… about same-sex unions,” he said. “If I was to disagree with Bishop Lawrence, he would try to teach me, and that would be the end of it. If I was to disagree with the Presiding Bishop, she would say, ‘OK, I’m taking your property and your church,’” he said. The witness didn’t name any individuals who gave him that impression, but said, “I sometimes read blogs in the computers.”
In addition to St. John’s, the remaining parishes testifying Tuesday were Christ Church, Mount Pleasant, Holy Trinity, Charleston; Trinity, Edisto; Old St. Andrew’s in West Ashley, and St. Philip’s, Charleston.