By Alan Runyan, legal counsel to the Diocese of South Carolina
The question whether a diocese can legally withdraw from The Episcopal Church can be addressed in five points from the perspective of Canon law (the body of laws adopted by church leadership for the governing of the church).
1. There is no provision in the constitution of The Episcopal Church (TEC) that forbids a diocesan withdrawal.
2. In light of this fact, all TEC can point to is a provision adopted in the 1980’s requiring new dioceses joining TEC to give an unqualified accession to TEC’s constitution and canons. It argues this means that an accession and subsequent association membership are irrevocable and that this provision is applicable to all dioceses notwithstanding its explicit limitation to new dioceses. The Diocese of South Carolina joined the association long before this provision was adopted and has never given an accession understood in these terms.
3. This interpretation fails in any event. It is an elementary principle of law that all acceptances of any contract, including joining any association, must be unqualified or unconditional at the time of joining in order to form a contract. If that made membership in an association or a contract irrevocable, no one could ever withdraw from an association or terminate a contract. The settled law provides otherwise.
4. The understanding that an unqualified accession is not irrevocable is also consistent with the practice of The Episcopal Church itself when it made an unqualified accession to the constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council in terms strikingly similar to those used by the Diocese in making its accession to the general Constitution. The Episcopal Church has always asserted its complete legal autonomy from the Anglican Communion and its official bodies.
5. As I stated already, even if there were an explicit provision forbidding diocese withdrawal, it would not be enforceable in the courts on constitutional grounds.
This is a summary of the final and binding interpretation issued by Bishop Lawrence in his capacity as Ecclesiastical Authority of the Diocese.