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From Rwanda, a Tale of Healing in South Carolina

Since the beginning of the 21st-century rupture, the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) have spent tens of millions of dollars nationwide in court disputes over property ownership. South Carolina has been one of the bitterest battlegrounds. Last year, the respective bishops of South Carolina resolved to get past the tragedy of Christians suing Christians. TLC’s Kirk Petersen caught up with Anglican Bishop Chip Edgar in April at the GAFCON conference in Kigali, Rwanda, and found him in a talkative mood.

TLC: For the past five years or so I’ve been covering litigation in South Carolina and elsewhere. I’ve written so much about conflict between TEC and ACNA. I am interested in anything that looks like reconciliation, or even cordial coexistence. And I see you and [Episcopal] Bishop Ruth [Woodliff-Stanley] modeling that.

Bishop Chip Edgar: It’s been one of the surprising, sweet gifts of this whole thing, and I always give her credit. When the Supreme Court decision came down, which was April 20, 2022, that was a very busy day. And I kept thinking to myself, I really am going to have to reach out to her. She beat me to the gun. So she gets the credit as the one who offered the olive branch.

But you were willing to take it.

I took it, and we met the next day. At that first meeting, we said we’re going to do everything we can to keep this from going back into the court system. There’s been enough lawyers paid, enough briefs filed. The [state] Supreme Court in that 2022 decision said “we’re done.” But the decision had raised as many questions as it solved. So we began a series of meetings – pretty formal, just me and my chancellor, her and her chancellor – working through list after list of questions that had to be answered, to effect the Supreme Court’s decision. If we had gone to court again over some of these questions, the expense, the time, and the energy would have exceeded the value of the things we were having conversations about.

Over that time, I found we were both committed to working with each other, committed to being honest and charitable. The net result of all that work was a pretty deep appreciation for each other. She took what looked to be some very difficult and very costly stands on behalf of staying out of litigation. The decision they made to sell us back one of our parishes, I think she paid for that with her people. Ruth and I had the advantage of coming in very late in the game. She was consecrated just a few months before I was. So neither of us came in carrying the wounds and the scars that are really there.

So what do you see as the future for relationships between your two dioceses?

I think that’s a way off. There have been a couple of times where Ruth has reached out to me to talk about issuing a kind of a joint statement on something. And I’m hesitant about that for a variety of reasons. We might find our way to agree on a statement about guns in the wake of another shooting or something like that. But there are under-the-surface iceberg differences. We could make the situation worse.

Bishops Chip Edgar and Ruth Woodliff-Stanley met for the first time on April 21, 2022, in Woodliff-Stanley’s office | Photo: Molly Hamilton

After a confusing series of rulings over several years, the April 2022 state Supreme Court decision divvied up the remaining contested church buildings based on arcane interpretations of each parish’s constitution or canons. (Parishes with documents saying they “conform to” the TEC canons went to ACNA, while parishes that “accede to” the same canons went to TEC. Seriously.) Some individual parishes have appealed the court ruling, but both dioceses have accepted it, and are working through the complicated details of handing over properties where necessary.

The first such handover was nothing less than a model of Christian charity. St. John’s Anglican moved out of a historic Johns Island church and into a middle-school auditorium, and St. John’s Episcopal was reestablished in the church building. Both congregations livestreamed their first services in new quarters on July 17, 2022, and neither service showed any trace of resentment or triumphalism. The Anglicans had transitioned to ACNA’s new 2019 prayer book, and stored the Episcopal prayer books. When the Episcopalians got the keys to the building, they found the pews stocked with the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

Bishop Chip Edgar: We now have seven templates for how we can reach agreements to effect transfer if transfer is required.

TLC: So there have been seven handovers. All in the same direction?

Yes, and one they chose to sell back to us. So that congregation stayed, but they had to do a quick capital campaign. They have an amazing woman priest there, Janet Echols, at St. Matthews in Fort Motte. People call it the mythical town of Fort Motte, because it’s actually an intersection with cornfields on every side. There are very few people to work with in terms of building a new congregation. So Ruth said, I’m not going to go in and further disrupt a small community by demanding that we get it back. So they set a price that was achievable for this little congregation. It was appraised value, but the appraised value of the church is nowhere near the value of the church. I thought that was the most impressive moment.

From the point of view of the people who were used to worshipping there, and then had to do a capital campaign to buy what they considered to be their own building — were they thankful for the opportunity? Were they resentful?

They were [thankful]. I think they realized that the Supreme Court had ruled, we’re gonna lose the building. They were delighted to have the opportunity to buy it back.

Let’s put aside South Carolina and go global, and talk about GAFCON.

Leaving the Episcopal Church was a grievous thing for me. I spent years looking back over my shoulder. But one of the great gifts of all that was getting to know these Rwandan Christians who have come through so much. There’s a fidelity that I just find irresistibly attractive. And in the world where there are teams being drawn, I cannot, not be on that team. I’m an anglophile, I love English choral music. This is a world of praise music. This is not my heart-language worship, but I’ve never been in worship that moved me more.

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