By Mark Michael

The Rev. Canon Ruth M. Woodliff-Stanley, an expert in strategic change, was elected on May 1 as the XV bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, the first woman to serve in that role. Stanley, 58, was chosen on the second ballot from a field of five candidates.

Woodliff-Stanley’s consecration on October 2 will mark the end of nearly a decade during which the diocese’s Episcopalians have been without a diocesan bishop, since South Carolina’s XIV bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence joined a majority of its parishes in leaving the Episcopal Church.

Bishop-elect Woodliff-Stanley joined the electing convention, which was held on Zoom, shortly after the election results were announced. “You have given a vision of what is possible,” she told the delegates. “It’s a vision I hope I can honor… Ours is the call to see the hearts of all the people of the world, beginning with one another.”

A native of Mississippi, Woodliff-Stanley is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Yale Divinity School. She served parishes in Mississippi and Colorado before becoming the canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of Colorado in 2016.

She currently serves as canon for strategic change for the Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York, facilitating a process of resource-sharing initiated by the dioceses’ shared bishop, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe. She is also the Episcopal Church Building Fund’s senior vice president for strategic change.

Woodliff-Stanley is married to the Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, a Unitarian Universalist minister who formerly served as the executive director of Colorardo’s chapter of the ACLU. The couple have two adult sons.

As bishop, Woodliff-Stanley will lead about 7,500 Episcopalians, who are members of 31 churches in the eastern half of the state of South Carolina. Many of them small “remnant” congregations of Episcopalian loyalists. In the see city of Charleston, known to locals as “the Holy City,” only a handful of the historically Episcopal churches are part of the diocese she will lead, most notably Grace Church Cathedral, a grand antebellum church elevated to that role in 2015. Its membership of nearly 2000 counts for more than a quarter of the diocesan total.

Years of vexing litigation over property and trademark rights with the Anglican Church of North America’s Diocese of South Carolina remain unresolved. The diocese that Woodliff-Stanley will lead secured exclusive rights to call itself “the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina” in September 2019.

But a battle over about $500 million worth of church property, including the 314-acre oceanside St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center goes on, with the ACNA-affiliated congregations continuing to use the disputed properties. In November 2020, when the dispute was last appealed back to South Carolina’s supreme court, the Episcopal diocese’s chancellor predicted a resolution this year. So far a final verdict remains elusive.

Since the diocese was reorganized in 2012, it has been served by two provisional bishops, Charles vonRosenburg and Gladstone Adams. The diocese began its search process for a diocesan bishop in January 2020. The search was paused for several months but resumed in August.

The other candidates on the slate were:

  • The Rev. Geoffrey M. St. John Hoare, rector of St. Alban’s Church, Washington, D.C.
  • The Rev. Kevin Allen Johnson, rector of St. Alban’s Church, Arlington, Texas
  • The Rev. Canon Terence Alexander Lee, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, New York
  • The Ven. Calhoun Walpole, archdeacon of South Carolina and vicar and subdean of Grace Church Cathedral, Charleston

The South Carolinians who departed the Episcopal Church in 2012 are also preparing to elect their own next leader. Bishop Mark Lawrence called for a coadjutor last year, and a pandemic-delayed election for his successor is scheduled for October 16