Bishop Skip Adams and Archdeacon Callie Walpole of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina have written an article seeking to clarify and explain the status of The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina with regard to the outcome of the litigation first brought against The Episcopal Church and TECSC, and the eventual ruling of the South Carolina Supreme Court in August 2017. A hearing is currently scheduled for November 19 in Orangeburg to implement that decision. Their article is a summary of the Church’s stance concerning current realities, as well as a call for the restoration of unity.
A Bishop of the Church, in response to criticism of public fighting within the Anglican Communion, once quipped that “we Anglicans do tend to wash our dirty laundry in public, but at least it gets clean.” The rupture of the once-grand Diocese of South Carolina brought serendipitous creative energy, especially among those Episcopalians who were displaced when their leadership left The Episcopal Church in 2012. But it also brought vast devastation, much of it owing to misinformation.
Thousands of church members of various denominations across the state have been paying close attention to the resolution of this legal battle. Some have decried – and denied – the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court in August 2017 as somehow threatening religious freedom. Actually, by finding that church property did in fact belong to The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, currently operating under the name The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and not the breakaway diocese, religious freedom was affirmed.
The Court held that The Episcopal Church’s structure is hierarchical as opposed to congregational like the Baptist and Congregational churches. Episcopal bishops, clergy, and lay representatives of dioceses across the country and beyond enact the policies and procedures that guide the whole Church. That is why a majority of votes from lay and clergy leaders in every diocese, as well as bishops, must consent to the election of any new bishop in the Church. Churches hold their property in trust for a general governing body.
In contrast, congregational churches own their property outright and have no wider body to answer to in matters of property ownership and control. One governance structure is not better than the other; however, they are markedly different. This Supreme Court decision has nothing to say about congregational church property, and only affects churches which are hierarchical in nature.
Religious freedom ensures that religious bodies are free to govern themselves as they see fit – to determine their own polity without threat of outside influence. This right is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. It does not permit us to possess property that is not ours simply because we decide to leave and form our own ecclesiastical organization.
It is understandable that people have been confused. Witness after witness speaking for the disassociated congregations declared they were unaware of the governance structure of The Episcopal Church, despite having participated in its governance, many for years and years.
In fact, over the last generation or so, across the country, The Episcopal Church has won virtually all of these property dispute cases – more than 30 and counting, in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and now South Carolina. The court finding in August 2017 is by no means a rare ruling in our country’s jurisprudence; rather, it enforces the rights of freedom of religion as numerous other high state courts have done.
The group that broke away now claims that the Supreme Court decision is unclear. Yet they clearly understood the decision at the time they petitioned the Court for a rehearing to mean that the property must be returned to The Episcopal Church. Former Chief Justice Toal, in her opinion, summarizing the result of the Court’s decision, explained that the property of the church organizations which agreed to follow the rules of the national church would remain as property of the national church and its local diocese. (See footnote 72 of the August 2017 decision.) Thus, to the extent the breakaway diocese now asserts “confusion” over the decision of this State’s highest court, which is final because the U.S. Supreme Court denied its petition, it need only look to its own acknowledgement in its petition for rehearing and to Justice Toal’s footnote.
In 1865, the Reverend Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a senior priest of the diocese, declared it was time for South Carolina to rejoin the Union. The war was lost, and it was time to restore and heal after the bloody conflict. While our ecclesiastical conflict has not been bloody, it has been brutal; it has wounded the heart of God, as well as numerous souls. We who remained in The Episcopal Church did not want this division. The disassociated group filed the lawsuit when they left the Church.
The decision of the Court is clear that the property is to be returned to The Episcopal Church and its local diocese so that Episcopalians, and all affected in this corner of the world, can begin to reunite. We cannot go back to the way things were, but we can be restored because, as people of faith and as Christians, we believe in the Resurrection. New life from the grave. A resurrected body is itself healed, but it also can bring healing to a world desperately in need.
Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey wrote, regarding Anglicanism: “Its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail in its soul. It is clumsy and untidy; it baffles neatness and logic. For it is sent not to commend itself as the ‘best type of Christianity,’ but by its very brokenness to point to the universal Church wherein all have died.”
Just as the Resurrection Fern growing in the limbs of the live oak comes back to life, so too can our battle-weary souls be transformed into agents of grace and healing, bringing new life out of death.
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III
The Venerable Calhoun Walpole
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.