Breaking away

South Carolina court ruling decides if ex-Episcopal churches get to keep their property

St. John’s Church on St. Johns Island in South Carolina belongs to the Episcopalians, the state supreme court ruled last year. A majority of its worshippers left and now worship at a nearby middle school.
(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)
St. John’s Church on St. Johns Island in South Carolina belongs to the Episcopalians, the state supreme court ruled last year. A majority of its worshippers left and now worship at a nearby middle school. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The slow-moving schism in the Episcopal Church was manna from heaven for law firms, but hell on earth for people in the pews.

Years of litigation drained tens of millions of dollars -- perhaps more -- from denominational, diocesan and parish coffers. Attendance plummeted from coast to coast.

The flash point came in 2003 with the election of a gay man, Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire and his ordination later in the year.

Theological and doctrinal differences that had simmered for years could no longer be papered over.

In the months and years that followed, parishes and, in some instances, entire dioceses attempted to break away.

The Diocese of South Carolina, which includes the half of the state closest to the coast, was one of them.

In 2012, its bishop, Mark Lawrence, and most of its clergy and members departed, with many subsequently aligning themselves with a newer, more doctrinally conservative body -- the Anglican Church in North America.


The national Episcopal Church said they were free to go, but that they'd have to leave the diocesan name and church property behind.

In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, where court battles raged for more than a decade, parishioners grew weary. So did the judges.

Now, both church groups say they're looking forward, ready to focus on ministry, eager to move on.

"We've reached kind of resolution on almost all of the remaining matters," said Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, who became bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina in October 2021.

"There are a few congregations, still, where we're waiting to hear the Supreme Court's decision, but we've engaged in self-guided mediation between the two dioceses to address the outstanding issues between us, and that has been quite successful," she said in December.

Last year, the state Supreme Court announced the fate of 29 conservative parishes, ruling that 21 were free to leave the Episcopal Church and take their real estate with them.


Eight others were forced to surrender their property because language in their legal documents had created an "irrevocable trust in favor of the National Church and its diocese," the court said.

One of the eight, with the approval of Woodliff-Stanley, was allowed to buy its property back from the Episcopal diocese.

The move surprised many observers. Breakaway parishes, typically, had been denied the ability to buy their buildings back. The decision, Woodliff-Stanley said at the time, was made ''after prayerful consideration, onsite visits and in-depth conversations with many to whom St. Matthew's, Fort Motte, is particularly dear.''

Parishioners at St. Matthew's Parish Church in Fort Motte successfully raised the $275,000 it needed.

They will gather on Sunday to celebrate that achievement.

While eschewing scorched-earth practices, Woodliff-Stanley remains committed to her core principles.

The diocese she leads is open and affirming of its gay and transgender members, she noted.

"Completely. One hundred percent. One thousand percent. On that, we are crystal clear," she said. "We've been through the battle for that to make clear that all are welcome."


With the lawsuits winding down and new leadership in place, both sides are looking to settle their remaining differences, when feasible, outside of the courtroom.

Lawrence retired as bishop of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina last year. His replacement, Bishop Chip Edgar, has been willing to work with his Episcopal counterpart.

Woodliff-Stanley said she is "grateful for his leadership."

"We've built deposits of trust. He has been a really honest broker. He's been straightforward. We have dealt with each other, I think, with good faith, with honesty, and we've had hard conversations and we've stayed at the table," she said.

The South Carolina Supreme Court, which issued multiple decisions on the case between 2017 and 2022, insists it is done rehashing the matter.

"The case is over," the court stated in its April ruling. (It wasn't over; the court ended up issuing a subsequent ruling in August.)

Thomas Tisdale, the Episcopal diocese's former chancellor who oversaw much of the litigation, said it has successfully weathered the storm.

"We've come through this terrible 'tornado', I'll call it, have gotten ourselves together, and we have an active, solid diocese."


The Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion and descended from the Church of England.

Its roots are particularly deep here; several of its churches are older than the United States.

St. Philip's Church in Charleston is the oldest parish, founded in 1680. In 1706, the General Assembly voted to make the Church of England the official church in the Royal Colony of South Carolina, status it enjoyed until revolution erupted.

The battle for independence was devastating for the American church, with many clergymen and members remaining loyal to King George III.

Following independence, U.S. Anglicans created a new denomination -- the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America -- and an updated Book of Common Prayer with prayers for the King no longer included.

Initially, local churches owned their own property. But in 1979, delegates to the church's General Convention declared that property "held by or for the benefit" of parishes, missions and congregations was "held in trust" for this Church [i.e., the Episcopal Church] and the Diocese ..."

The language became important a quarter-century later, as the denomination began unraveling.


In South Carolina, courts ruled that the 1979 canon could not be used to strip a parish of its property unless the parish had acceded to the provision.

In some instances, South Carolina congregations had done that explicitly, agreeing to hold the property in trust for the national church. In others, the wording was ambiguous or absent altogether.

Ultimately, the state Supreme Court made the determination on a case-by-case basis.

Pre-split, average Sunday attendance in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina was 12,371. By 2019, it had fallen to 2,809.

The Anglican Diocese has average Sunday attendance today of about 8,500, according to Jim Lewis, an assistant to the bishop, known as canon to the ordinary, of the diocese.

For a time, it looked like the state Supreme Court would award all 29 parish churches to the national Episcopal Church.

Ultimately, the denomination kept only a handful.

"That is very much the mercy of God and the fruit of good lawyering," Lewis said.

No longer in litigation mode, the Anglican diocese can shift its attention to spreading the gospel.

"We have a peaceful resolution. We can all move on now, in large part because of the ability of the two bishops, the bishops of both dioceses, to come together and work out a settlement agreement that everyone can live with," he said.


At St. Matthew's in Fort Motte, 90 miles northeast of Charleston, parishioners were bracing for eviction after losing the Supreme Court's August ruling.

Instead, the small, rural congregation was given an opportunity to buy their place of worship.

"We had 90 days to raise the money. We did it in 60," said Janet Echols, the parish's rector.

"The Lord completely surprised us by sending us money from random places and random people, people that we didn't even know, people that hadn't even been in the church," she said. "It's not that God was adequate in this case. He was abundant."

She credits Woodliff-Stanley with taking a genuine interest in her tiny congregation and its ministries. And she praises both bishops for building relationships.

"We need to spend more time in conversation and in coming to understand each other and praying and less time in court," Echols said.

Not all of the conservative congregations have been able to keep their buildings.

After court setbacks, a majority of the members of St. John's Church on Johns Island departed. Now known as St. John's Parish Church, they're meeting instead at the Haut Gap Middle School, less than a mile away.

Losing the property was painful, said Jeremy Shelton, the congregation's rector.

"Two hundred and eight-eight years of history, of family members buried in the graveyard and things like that -- it was very difficult to have to leave," Shelton said.

"We know the reasons that we left -- standing firm for the one true gospel of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scripture, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ -- were worth it," he said.


When a denomination is in schism, negotiation is generally preferable to litigation, he said.

"If folks can come together and agree to separate amicably, then that would be a blessing to everybody," he said.

Calhoun "Callie" Walpole became vicar at St. John's Episcopal Church following the court's ruling.

For now, her focus is on "the healing of souls after deep devastation."

"There's a tremendous amount of pain and grief all the way around," she said. "We are called to allow ourselves to be agents of healing."

The group that remains at St. John's Episcopal Church is faithful, and there's potential for growth, she said.

The congregation has struggled before, losing one building in the Revolutionary War era and another during the Civil War.

"This is not the first time that St. John's has had to face and had to endure and had to get about the business of rebuilding," Walpole said.

Rebuilding is occurring elsewhere in the Episcopal diocese as well, Woodliff-Stanley said.

With the protracted legal battles ending, "we can begin to turn our attention to the present and the future and really use our resources and our energy on building the kingdom, being God's people in South Carolina," she said.

CORRECTION: Gene Robinson was elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003 and was ordained later that year. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the state in which Robinson served as bishop.

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