By Kirk Petersen
Sometimes a change in leadership can accomplish something that previously seemed impossible.
On September 26, the Episcopal Bishop of South Carolina (on the job for not quite a year at the time) and the Anglican Bishop of South Carolina (just over six months after his consecration) announced the settlement of most aspects of a decade-long property litigation that cost incalculable millions of dollars.
“This settlement was made possible after extensive, good-faith discussions between the leadership of each diocese, each of which was engaged in an open dialogue of mutual respect and good will toward one another,” said the Rt. Rev. Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, the Episcopal bishop, in a written announcement.
“This settlement agreement allows us to invest our diocesan energy, time, focus, and resources in gospel ministry rather than litigation,” wrote the Rt. Rev. Chip Edgar, the diocesan bishop in the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). The bishops both expressed gratitude for the graciousness shown by each to the other since discussions began in April.
The two bishops met for the first time on April 21, the day after the South Carolina Supreme Court partly overruled a lower, trial court that previously appeared to fully overrule the state Supreme Court. Then in August, the state Supreme Court partly overruled its own decision from just four months earlier.
It is hard to overstate how confusing the litigation has been. Since Bishop Mark Lawrence and a majority of the congregations in the diocese left the Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2012, nominal control or ownership of changing subsets of the church properties have shifted from TEC to ACNA (2012) to TEC (2017) to ACNA (2020) to TEC (April 2022) to ACNA (August 2022).
And the litigation is not entirely over yet. “While the settlement does not affect the remaining issues regarding the property rights of three parishes currently pending before the South Carolina Supreme Court, nor the betterments lawsuit by several parishes pending in state trial court, it does resolve all issues regarding diocesan and trustee property and assets,” Edgar wrote. The betterments lawsuit in particular holds the potential for further expensive conflict. Under the state betterments statute, a party who makes improvements to a property, in a good-faith belief that the party owns the property, may be entitled to reimbursement if a court rules that the property belongs to someone else.
But the settlement resolves the vast majority of the sprawling litigation over half a billion dollars in property. The biggest single chunk of that is the 314-acre St. Christopher Camp & Conference Center on Seabrook Island, which goes to the Episcopalians. The 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 sold in June for $1.2 million, according to Zillow.com.
The dioceses did not release the full details of the settlement, but both published 11 identically worded bullet points describing various aspects, while not naming any of the affected churches. Some of the provisions reflect imaginative compromises. For example, the ACNA diocese has had possession of historical papers and silver accumulated since the Diocese of South Carolina was established in 1785 as one of the nine original dioceses of the Episcopal Church. Rather than continue to litigate over rightful ownership, the disputed items will be donated to local museums or historical organizations, after each diocese has an opportunity to make images of the documents.
The Episcopal diocese has planted new congregations in three of the church buildings that were turned over by ACNA since final adjudication of ownership earlier this year. At the first of these — historic St. John’s on Johns Island — the first TEC service in a decade was held on July 17. On the same date, the large and thriving ACNA congregation that was displaced held its first service in temporary quarters at a nearby middle school. Both churches livestreamed their services, which were 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.
“I remain hopeful that we can bring remaining parish issues to full resolution and move into a new season of ministry as two distinct dioceses working alongside each other in the same communities for the sake of the gospel,” Woodliff-Stanley wrote.