As Episcopal churches in South Carolina continue to deal with the legal issues surrounding the ownership of church properties following a split between the Diocese of South Carolina and the national church, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina is extending an offer of reconciliation.
36 churches comprising the Diocese of South Carolina (also known as the “Protestant Episcopal Church”) decided to separate in 2012 over theological issues. As a result of the split, parishes sued the Episcopal Church so that the breakaway churches individually could keep control of the parish properties. However, the state Supreme Court ruled against them, determining 29 of the churches should be returned to the national church. 31 churches remained with the national church and became knowns as the “Episcopal Church in South Carolina.”
Last month the U.S. Supreme Court denied the Protestant Episcopal Church’s request to hear the case. Canon to the Ordinary of the Protestant Episcopal Church Jim Lewis said the case remains undecided.
“We’re disappointed the court chose not to resolve the serious division that exists right now in the lower courts, though our case was a providential opportunity to do that,” he said. “The South Carolina Supreme Court clearly did not use neutral principles of law. They very much deferred to the national denomination and their statements on who owned property and on what basis.”
Click here to read the opinion from the South Carolina Supreme Court. After the 2017 ruling, the diocese property and 28 parishes are held in trust for the Episcopal Church.
The case has been remitted to the Dorchester County Court, where it was originally filed in 2013 and tried. A Petition for an Accounting was filed earlier this month.
“It’s our belief that there are a significant number of legal issues to be resolved in this case,” Lewis said, describing the ruling made by the state supreme court as “fractured.”
“It’s five separate opinions and they don’t agree,” he said. “There is no majority legal opinion on anything in this ruling.”
But the national church sees it differently.
“The folks who decided to disassociate from the Episcopal church sued us. We didn’t sue them,” said Right Rev. Gladstone B. “Skip” Adams III, Bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
“All of the congregations still hold title in their own name to these properties and until such a time as a judge acts to change that, we’ll continue on that basis to do ministry as we have, in some cases, over 300 years in these places of worship,” Adams said. “We certainly are doing everything we can to help our congregations together to maintain control of these properties that they have built for ministry over the course of all these generations.”
Despite its name, the Diocese of South Carolina only covers the Episcopal churches in the Lowcountry and eastern parts of South Carolina. The Diocese of Upper South Carolina, which covers the Midlands and Upstate, is not part of the schism.
The Diocese of South Carolina was founded in 1785, predating the formal national Episcopal Church in the United States. Both trace their history back to the Church of England during colonial times.
“Many of these congregations go back to 100 years before that,” Lewis said. “The history in these congregations is significant.”
Many of the 28 parishes in dispute are on the South Carolina Historic Properties Record. For instance, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston was founded in 1680. For nearly 350 years, generations of worshippers have been baptized, married and buried in the church property.
Lewis said it’s “difficult to guess” what the Episcopal Church in South Carolina will do with the disputed church properties if the legal fight ends in its favor. “I really would not be able to give anybody in a parish in our diocese an assurance of what the fate of the building’s going to be,” Lewis said.
“We’re hoping to have not only soft conversations around the edges, on the street, in grocery stores, those kinds of things, but also to be able to engage people in the pew,” Adams said. “We can be unified around the person of Jesus even as we wrestle with different difficult matters of faith and theology and application, all those things.”
Some members of the Protestant Episcopal Church, who wanted to remain unnamed, expressed concern that the properties would be sold to developers or other religious communities.
When he was assigned to a diocese in New York, Bishop Adams was involved in litigation involving the Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, a parish that separated from the national Episcopal church. The small church was eventually shuttered and sold to an Islamic Awareness Center.
Whn asked about the church in New York, Adams responded, “We have no intention for anyone to have to leave their church where beloved ancestors, parents, grandparents, uncles, cousins, are buried in many of those churchyards. They are free to stay right where they are and in fact, we hope they do.”
He preached reconciliation with the Episcopal church, although large divides remain. The more conservative Diocese of South Carolina was unhappy with the national church’s evolution, particularly on clergy being allowed to have same-sex relationships.
“It’s been bridged in history with other kinds of breaks in the body of Christ and so our faith teaches us that all things are possible for those who love God,” said Adams. “We believe that the reconciliation that we are about is one that has been accomplished in Christ and our responsibility now is to live into the reconciliation that has already been accomplished in his life and ministry.”
But the breakaway dioceses made it clear they will not return to the national church — even though they risk losing their properties.
“If you look behind what they mean by that word, you discover quickly that what it translates to is complete and total surrender,” Lewis said. “And we’re certainly not going back to the Episcopal Church and no, I don’t believe any of our parishioners have an interest . . . It’s misleading the way they use that word and unfortunate. Reconciliation requires someone to repent and I’ve seen no evidence of repentance on the part of the Episcopal Church.”
This week The Episcopal Church in South Carolina is hosting three “public open conversations to provide information and answer questions for people whose churches are affected by recent court decisions,” said a statement from the Church.
“The whole story of the Episcopal Church is so inextricably linked with the history of South Carolina. Early on, even in the 1600’s and all along the way the Episcopal Church has been a wonderful steward of those places,” Adams said. “We’ve continued to be good stewards of the parishes that remain with the Episcopal Church and nothing would change in receiving folks back. We would continue to honor that legacy because all of these places are holy places. They are places where holy things have occurred, where people have said their prayers for centuries.”