By Kirk Petersen
“The case is over.”
Thus spake the South Carolina Supreme Court in a ruling dated April 20, 2022, referring to the nearly decade-long litigation over ownership of church properties in the state. Less than four months later, the same court essentially decided: Not really.
In an August 17 opinion, the court ruled that six church properties in six South Carolina towns rightfully belong to parishes affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). In April, the same court had ruled that the properties (and others) belonged to the Episcopal Church (TEC) and its Diocese of South Carolina.
The April decision was a clarification of an ambiguous mishmash of five overlapping 2017 opinions — one by each member of the Supreme Court — that appeared to have awarded the same properties (and others) to TEC. Thus the latest decision can be seen as the court overruling its previous overruling of itself.
Except it’s actually more complicated than that.
The six churches whose ownership changes under the August ruling are a subset of eight churches that individually filed petitions for rehearing after the April decision. The other two petitions were rejected.
In turn, the eight churches are a subset of the 14 churches awarded to TEC in April. Also in that ruling, 15 other churches were awarded to their ACNA parishes. The two Dioceses of South Carolina (Episcopal and ACNA) decided in May to accept that outcome, and let pass a deadline to petition for rehearing.
But eight individual ACNA-affiliated parishes did ask the court to reconsider the ruling it had just made. Given that the court had just declared “the case is over,” it appeared to be a Hail Mary pass — or rather, eight such passes.
Sometimes, Hail Mary passes are caught. The six previously TEC-bound churches awarded to ACNA on August 17 are:
- Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg
- Church of the Holy Comforter, Sumter
- St. Jude’s, Walterboro
- Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston (founded in 1706, with an estimated current membership of 750)
- St. Luke’s, Hilton Head
- Trinity, Myrtle Beach
The court denied a petition from Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston. It previously declined to consider a petition from Christ Church, Mount Pleasant.
The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina said it will review its options in response to the August 17 ruling. The corresponding ACNA diocese said: “With today’s revised opinion, all property ownership questions are finally settled.”
The ACNA statement may sound a lot like saying “the case is over” — but it’s actually more nuanced, and may be more correct. The United States Supreme Court long ago declined to hear the case, so it’s hard to see how there could be any further changes in “property ownership.”
But “the case” could still have some life left in it. It’s one thing for a court to rule that a building must change ownership. It’s another thing for the parties to agree on what portable possessions should remain in the building when a church hands over the keys. Last year, during a similar court-ordered property transfer in Fort Worth, Texas, departing Episcopalians took all the pews from one church and disassembled parts of the high altar at another. A judge promptly ordered that all items “necessary for the operations” of the churches be returned. For the remaining possessions, the parties subsequently reached agreement (under court supervision) on what belongs where.
There’s reason to be cautiously hopeful that things will go more smoothly in South Carolina. The two Bishops of South Carolina met face to face the day after the April ruling, and have continued to hold meetings with each other, along with members of their respective staffs, in an effort to calm the waters. It helps that neither leader has personally endured years of litigation. Episcopal Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley was consecrated in October 2021, and ACNA Bishop Chip Edgar in March 2022.
The dioceses have some success under their belts in terms of amicable transitions. In March, St. John’s Anglican Church moved out of a historic Johns Island church and into a middle school auditorium, while St. John’s Episcopal Church made a joyful return to the church property with a newly appointed vicar. Both churches live-streamed their initial services in their new venues, and there was no trace of acrimony in either video.
After the August 17 ruling, the vacationing Bishop Woodliff-Stanley wrote a pastoral letter to her Episcopal diocese. “The Court today referenced these churches as property, but the people of the diocese know all too well that it’s not about simple real estate,” she wrote. “I am particularly mindful that when a decision we understood to be final is subsequently reversed again, it creates a distinct kind of pain and anger.” Over the decade of litigation, the nominal ownership (or control) of the six churches has switched from Episcopal to ACNA to Episcopal again, and now back to ACNA.
What has made the litigation so complicated? Ultimate ownership of each church hinged on whether it was deemed to have individually agreed, in writing, to be bound by the so-called Dennis Canon — more formally known as Canon I.7.4 of the Episcopal Church. That canon, adopted by the 1979 General Convention, specifies that church properties are “held in trust” for the diocese in which the church is located.
The canon has been interpreted and enforced in different ways across the country, depending on the specifics of trust law within each state. In South Carolina, the state Supreme Court meticulously examined the bylaws or similar records of each of the 29 churches in dispute, and sorted the churches based on seemingly tiny differences in language. For example, churches that “adopted” or “acceded to” the Churchwide canons (implying a past action, according to the court) went in the Episcopal column, while churches that “agreed to be bound by” the canons (implying contemplation of a potential future action) went to ACNA. It seems safe to assume the volunteer vestries at the various churches did not fully understand these distinctions when they voted on their bylaws years ago.
The battle began in 2012, when the then-Bishop of South Carolina led the majority of the parishes in the diocese out of affiliation with the Episcopal Church over doctrinal disputes. It was the fifth of five dioceses that split in similar fashion.
God only knows what the litigation has cost over the years. A plausible estimate is in the high single-digit or low double-digit millions of dollars, including the costs of all parties: the TEC and ACNA parent churches; the TEC and ACNA Dioceses of South Carolina; and the individual churches, many of which have separate legal counsel.
You could fill a book describing all the twists and turns in the South Carolina litigation. In fact, someone has: A History of the Episcopal Church Schism in South Carolina is available on Amazon in hardback, paperback and Kindle versions. The author, Ronald James Caldwell, is a retired professor and a partisan for the Episcopal side, who since 2013 has published nearly a thousand blog posts documenting and analyzing decisions, hearings, court briefs, and announcements about the case. He maintains a running chronology that is useful for keeping track of the various dates, and writes about major developments within hours after they occur.
Caldwell’s book was published in early 2017. That means the 548-page book ends before any of the decisions described in this article.