South Carolina Supreme Court reversal blocks transfer of 6 churches to Episcopal diocese

By ENS staff
Posted Aug 19, 2022

[Episcopal News Service] The South Carolina Supreme Court, after ruling in April that the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina must be returned 14 church properties occupied by Anglican Church in North America congregations, reversed itself in an opinion issued Aug. 17, saying that the ACNA diocese is only required to return eight of the church properties.

For the remaining six churches, the ACNA congregations successfully argued in petitions for a rehearing that they had not placed their property in trust for the benefit of The Episcopal Church and its associated diocese. The state Supreme Court had previously ruled that 15 additional ACNA congregations could retain their church property for similar reasons.

“I am very disappointed, as I am sure are many of you,” Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley said in a message to her diocese. “I am keenly aware of the many connections across our diocese to the six churches that were referenced in the Court’s decision. The cost to all of our communities is significant, particularly to those with direct links to these churches. …

“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. Know that we will be reviewing all possible courses of action as we move forward.”

The latest shift in the case comes as Episcopal clergy have begun leading worship services again in some of the churches that were ordered to be returned to the Episcopal diocese. Several property transfers are complete or progressing as the Episcopal diocese winds down its decade-long legal battle with a breakaway group now affiliated with ACNA. The dioceses also are expected soon to provide an update on the status of the transfer of St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center on Seabrook Island to the Episcopal diocese.

The eight churches that have been transferred or are in the process of being transferred to the Episcopal diocese are St. John’s Episcopal Church on Johns Island, Christ Church in Mt. Pleasant, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Cheraw, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Charleston; St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Hartsville; St. James Episcopal Church in James Island, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Fort Motte and Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The ACNA congregations at Christ Church and Good Shepherd were among those that had filed for a rehearing, but both were denied by the state Supreme Court. The ACNA diocese declined to file its own request for the court to review the ruling, which initially seemed to offer a level of finality to the case.

The Diocese of South Carolina, one of the state’s two Episcopal dioceses, is based in Charleston and counts about 7,500 members in 31 congregations across the southeast half of the state, including the Atlantic coastline. It was one of the original nine dioceses when The Episcopal Church was founded in 1785.

The ACNA diocese was founded by former Episcopal leaders who left the church in 2012 over theological and doctrinal differences, particularly related to the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy and blessing and marriage rites for same-sex couples.

The state Supreme Court court based its April decision on a variety of factors, including whether the 29 ACNA parishes in question had created an “irrevocable trust in favor of the National Church and its diocese.” It initially concluded that 14 had done so and 15 hadn’t.

It later agreed to consider some of the ACNA congregations’ requests for a rehearing based on two arguments: revocation of trust based on a specific South Carolina law, and that “no trust was created because the language purporting to constitute accession existed in the bylaws or constitutions before 1979.” After considering the arguments presented in the parties’ briefs, the court changed its initial ruling, finding that six more ACNA congregations either hadn’t created a trust in favor of the Episcopal diocese or had revoke their trusts.

The diocese’s chancellor, Skip Utsey, said in a diocesan announcement that diocesan leadership will meet next week with Woodliff-Stanley to review the diocese’s options. Woodliff-Stanley offered words of hope to Episcopalians in her diocese.

“Despite this very difficult decision, I remain convinced that the God who began a good work among us, will continue to strengthen us and make our diocese flourish,” she said in her message. “We have a future filled with hope rooted in the love, mercy, and justice of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I am excited to continue this journey with you. It is my great joy to serve among you.”