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US court ruling returns 14 churches in South Carolina to the Episcopal Church

29 April 2022


Diocesan properties, such as Camp St Christopher (above), will also return to the Episcopalian diocese

Diocesan properties, such as Camp St Christopher (above), will also return to the Episcopalian diocese

THE Supreme Court of South Carolina has ruled that 14 church properties must be returned to the Episcopal Church in the United States, a decade after their congregations broke away.

The 14 churches include the oldest church in the state, Old St Andrew’s, Charleston, which was built in 1706. Diocesan properties, such as Camp St Christopher, will also return to the Episcopalian diocese. A further 15 churches will stay with the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, which is part of the Anglican Church of North America.

The 29 parishes broke away from the Episcopal Church in protest at its ordination of gay clergy and same-sex marriages (News, 23 November, 2012), and a property dispute has waged in the courts ever since (News, 26 June 2020).

The court’s ruling hinged on whether the churches had expressly agreed to an Episcopal Church law that places all parish properties in a trust belonging to the national Church. The court ruled that 14 parishes had explicitly done so, but 15 had not.

Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, of the Episcopal diocese, said in a pastoral letter that the court’s decision “will no doubt bring joy to many in our diocese, but for others, there will be grief in the possible finality of a loss they have been feeling for nearly 10 years”. She urged people “to focus together on reconciliation”.

In an interview with a local news channel, Live Five, Bishop Woodliff-Stanley said that she recognised the importance of church buildings to the communities that they had served — some, such as Old St Andrew’s, for many centuries.

“These are historic properties, important properties in the state of South Carolina, where you know, people have baptised their children. They have been married there. They have buried their dead there . . . so these properties have a great deal of significance to all of us.”

Bishop Chip Edgar, of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, told his congregations: “The ruling raises many issues that will have to play out in the coming weeks before any actions are taken; so our first response must be to quiet our hearts before the Lord as we pray for grace to meet the days ahead.

“Some of our churches are relieved that the court ruled their property does indeed belong to them. Some are grieving deeply, as the court’s ruling went the opposite direction. If we take seriously St Paul’s admonition to rejoice with those who rejoice while we weep with those who weep, we will find this to be a season marked by both, regardless of how it affects us personally. So, lift each other up in prayer as we enter the complex emotions of these days.”

The Bishops met two days after the court’s ruling, and pledged to work together on property transfers and other issues. They agreed that they had an “appetite to move into a new season marked by a different tone and tenor between our two communities”, Bishop Woodliff-Stanley said.

The legal battle is still not over, however, as the use of trademarks and emblems is currently with the US Court of Appeals.

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