By Kirk Petersen
The Bishops of South Carolina are talking.
After nearly a decade of property litigation and millions of dollars of legal costs, the leaders of rival dioceses in South Carolina have held ongoing talks since they met each other for the first time on April 21. They hope to avoid further conflict among Christians over the ownership of property.
These are not the bishops who started or sustained the litigation. The Rt. Rev. Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was consecrated seven months ago as the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. The head of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina is even newer: The Rt. Rev. Chip Edgar was consecrated just two months ago.
As reported by the Charleston Post and Courier, “I think we both have an appetite to move into a new season marked by a different tone and tenor between our two communities,” Woodliff-Stanley said. “There’s an imperative to explore whether we can’t move forward in a very different sort of spirit than we have been in the past,” Edgar said.
The April 21 introduction was prompted by a ruling the day before, in which the Supreme Court of South Carolina divided the 29 disputed church properties into two buckets of roughly equal size. Based on parsing miniscule language differences in the bylaws or constitutions of the parishes, the high court awarded 14 church properties to the Episcopal diocese and 15 to the Anglican diocese. All 29 are currently occupied and used by congregations affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
This was the second time the state Supreme Court considered the case. In 2017, the five members of the court each issued separate opinions that appeared to decide various parts of the case based on different 3-2 votes. That ruling was interpreted at the time as awarding the properties to TEC, while remanding enforcement to the trial court.
However, the lower circuit court ruled in 2020 that the higher court’s decision actually favored the ACNA-affiliated parishes.
After the Supreme Court’s April ruling, the parties had an early-May deadline to request a rehearing. On May 6, the Anglican diocese announced that its Standing Committee decided unanimously to let the deadline pass without filing, but that eight of the 15 churches had filed petitions, “based on their specific and unique circumstances.” The Episcopal diocese did not seek a rehearing. In its unanimous 36-page ruling, the state supreme court bluntly declared, “the case is over,” which may not bode well for the rehearing petitions.
One of the eight petitioning churches is Old St. Andrew’s in Charleston, built in 1706, “the oldest surviving structure used for worship south of Virginia,” according to the church website. It has an estimated 750 members, and three of the other petitioning ACNA churches reported membership of more than 500, according to Molly Hamilton, director of communications for the Episcopal diocese. The median membership of Episcopal churches nationwide is about 130.
The Episcopalians also get the enormously valuable St. Christopher Camp & Conference Center on Seabrook Island. The 314-acre property, which can provide lodging for more than 300 guests, sits a few hundred yards away from a four-bedroom home on a quarter acre that is currently listed for sale at $1.3 million, according to Zillow.com.
Hamilton said that Bishop Woodliff-Stanley and the diocese would not be commenting on the negotiations while they are taking place. For the Anglican diocese, Director of Communications Joy Hunter confirmed that there are discussions taking place, but said any further comment would have to come from Canon to the Ordinary Jim Lewis, who for years has been the spokesman on litigation matters. Lewis did not return a call requesting comment.
The litigation began in 2013, the year after then-Bishop of South Carolina Mark Lawrence led a majority of the diocese’s parishes in disaffiliating from the Episcopal Church, becoming the fifth and final bishop to do so. Lawrence’s retirement became effective when Edgar was consecrated in March.
After the disaffiliation, the Episcopal diocese was led by provisional bishops who were hired with contracts that did not provide tenure. Woodliff-Stanley is the first bishop diocesan since the split.