By Kirk Petersen
The pews were full for a joyous first service July 17 at a historic, resurrected St. John’s Episcopal Church on John’s Island, South Carolina. It was the first of several churches changing hands after the state Supreme Court ended — or nearly ended — a decade of litigation over church properties.
The court ruled in April that 14 of 29 parish properties in the hands of congregations affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) must be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, part of the Episcopal Church (TEC). The other 15 churches were ruled to be the property of the ACNA congregations that worshipped there. The 314-acre St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center, which has been operated by the Anglicans, also was ruled to belong to the Episcopalians.
Although the court declared in its 36-page decision that “the case is over,” it isn’t, quite. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2018, but eight of the ACNA congregations petitioned for a rehearing in the state Supreme Court.
Molly Hamilton, director of communications for the Episcopal diocese, said one petition was denied outright, and legal briefs are being exchanged for the others. The diocese is still determining on a case-by-case basis where it will attempt to plant congregations, and how it will proceed in other situations.
St. John’s Episcopal is being resourced for the long haul, led by an experienced priest. In June, the Rev. Canon Calhoun Walpole was appointed vicar at St. John’s on an open-ended, interim basis. Walpole had been serving as vicar and subdean at Grace Church Cathedral in Charleston, and before that served for eight years as archdeacon of the diocese — a position that at the time was equivalent to canon to the ordinary, or chief of staff.
Walpole told TLC that about 275 people attended three services on July 17, in buildings where no Episcopal congregation had existed for years. In addition to the main church, St. John’s also owns Grace Chapel, a “chapel of ease” 11 miles away, in the village of Rockville. Grace Chapel typically holds services only in the summer.
Walpole said the worshippers included well-wishers from the diocese; potential Episcopalian parishioners who had been worshipping elsewhere; and local worshippers who are more attached to the building than to the denomination.
This is a homecoming for Walpole, who was baptized at St. John’s and grew up worshipping there. She, the diocese, and the nascent congregation will discern together whether her role will be temporary or not, but she said the intention is to establish a permanent Episcopal congregation there, regardless of the length of her personal involvement.
“There’s a core there, from which we’re beginning to rebuild. And that’s just been incredible to see,” she said. There is no vestry yet, but she has a senior warden with strong ties to the island, David Maybank, who she credited with building enthusiasm for the new venture.
Walpole said there has been an Episcopal (or Anglican) church on the site since 1734. The current structure was built in 1955, and is the fourth iteration of St. John’s.
The change of ownership is a source of grief, of course, to the large and thriving Anglican congregation that was displaced. ACNA’s St. John’s Parish Church began worshipping temporarily July 17 in an auditorium in Haut Gap Middle School, less than a mile away.
Both churches livestreamed on Facebook their first service in new quarters, and both worship spaces were full. Both services are remarkably forward-looking, with no hint of bitterness in the video and comments of the Anglican St. John’s, or of triumphalism at the Episcopal service.
“Copies of the 1979 prayer book and copies of the 1982 hymnal were returned to the pews prior to our arrival,” Walpole said, calling it “a very gracious gesture.” This was a stark contrast to the corresponding handoff in Fort Worth in 2021. Episcopalian congregations were forced to relocate there, and in at least two cases the departing members stripped out almost everything of value — including the pews at one church and portions of the high altar at the other. These items were returned under court order.
Fortuitously, the Anglican St. John’s congregation no longer uses the prayer books and hymnals they left behind. The Rev. Jeremy Shelton, rector of the ACNA congregation, declined to be interviewed, but the church’s website and videos indicate they worship instead with ACNA’s 2019 prayer book, and sing praise music with lyrics projected on a screen.
The tone in South Carolina is being set at the top. The two persons using the title Bishop of South Carolina met face-to-face for the first time the day after the April Supreme Court ruling, and they and their staffs have continued meeting since then, seeking common ground and trying to smooth the way for court-ordered property handoffs. It helps that both bishops are relatively new, and have had little exposure to the litigation. TEC’s Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was consecrated in October 2021, and ACNA’s Bishop Chip Edgar was consecrated in March 2022.
The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina is one of the Episcopal Church’s nine original dioceses, established in 1785. Since 1922 it has shared the state with the inland Diocese of Upper South Carolina. In 2012, the then-Bishop of South Carolina and a majority of the parishes left the Episcopal Church over doctrinal differences, becoming the fifth of five such diocesan splits. The website of the current Episcopal diocese lists 31 congregations.
The website of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina lists 56 parishes, although that understates ACNA’s representation in the state. Unlike TEC, ACNA has multiple overlapping dioceses, owing to its formation from factions that left the Episcopal Church at various times. ACNA’s Diocese of the Carolinas lists 15 churches in South Carolina, most but not all of them inland. The Diocese of the Southeast lists 30 more, and other dioceses are represented in the state.