The following frequently asked questions (FAQ’s) are offered as a more detailed explanation of recent events in the Diocese of South Carolina. Please return here frequently, as these will be updated as new information becomes available.
What does the US Supreme Court denial mean?
While it’s disappointing our appeal to the US Supreme Court was denied, we knew the likelihood of any case being taken is very low. Also, the same day our petition was denied, a Minnesota case involving a Presbyterian Church was also denied. In Eden Prairie, the same facts applied, but with an outcome opposite to ours. That congregation was ruled to have left its denomination with both its name and property. Denial of our petitions is not a judgement on the merits of either case or their outcomes. The Court simply chose not to review this issue at this time. And as is always the case with the denial of a petition, there is no explanation given.
Is the litigation over?
No. As the Episcopal Church stated in their own brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, the five South Carolina State Supreme Court opinions are “fractured,” to the degree of being virtually unenforceable as written. Executing them, as TEC has now asked the Dorchester Court to do, will require interpreting what they mean both individually and collectively. It will also require the answer to a number of very complicated questions created by those conflicting opinions and the legal rationale (or lack thereof) for each opinion.
As just one example, the deciding vote (Justice Beatty) said only parishes that “acceded in writing to the Dennis Canon” created a trust. No parish acceded in writing to the Dennis Canon. On that basis, what the ruling actually says is that no congregation should lose their property. We do not believe these, or many other matters, are close to being settled.
It also should be understood that there are two other legal matters pending.
- The Diocese has filed a claim under the state Betterments Statute for the 29 parishes claimed to be subject to the adverse ruling of the State Supreme Court. The statute says that if a property owner, in good faith, believing they own their property, makes improvements, only to later have a court determine it belongs to another, they must be reimbursed for the value of those improvements. While this statute only takes effect in the case of a final judgement (which we don’t believe has been reached), the settlement of such a claim will not be speedy.
- Finally, TEC has been pursuing a false advertising claim in the Federal Courts since 2013, asserting first that the Bishop, and more recently the congregations have held themselves out as being “Episcopal” when they are not. While laughable on the face of it, the assertion of trademark violations continues and the judge will move that case forward in the coming months.
None of these matters are close to immediate resolution. How long it will take to do so is impossible to determine at this time.
Why continue litigation?
The current ruling is unjust.
It’s unjust both in terms of how it was achieved and what it suggests. Left standing, it creates a precedent in South Carolina that not only violates the rights of our parishes but may do so for countless others in the future. That property can be taken, solely on the force of a denominational claim, with no agreement by the local congregation is wrong. To correct this injustice, we should never be quick to surrender. And our greatest hope of success comes if we resist this injustice together. There are sound reasons to believe the rule of law will yet prevail in our case. That is worth the effort.
Gospel Proclamation is central.
Secondly, the parishes of the Diocese of South Carolina have been faithfully proclaiming the Gospel for over 300 years. Many places of worship in which we gather and serve have been beacons of good news since before the founding of this nation. That witness will, by God’s grace, continue, with or without these properties. It is a certainty that we will not return to the denomination that rejected our adherence to the faith once received even if we are forced from our spiritual homes and required to rebuild. And Gospel proclamation is the central issue. The Episcopal Church has demonstrated repeatedly, by words and actions of its leaders, to be a church “over scripture.” Its operating philosophy, as one bishop wrote, is that, “The church wrote the bible. It can rewrite the bible.” A Diocese such as ours, that understands itself to be “under” the authority of scripture will be increasingly and irreconcilably in conflict with such a denomination. The value for ministry and the long heritage of our places of worship is immeasurable. Good stewardship recognizes the richness of this heritage and seeks to pass it on to future generations and that is still worth defending.
Maintaining Biblical Anglicanism is a Global Issue.
Finally, as Bishop Lawrence has reminded us repeatedly, the issue of maintaining faithfulness to Biblical Anglicanism is not just a South Carolina issue, or even a United States issue, but a global issue. As the third largest church body in Christendom, Anglicanism as a faithful expression of the Gospel is vitally important. A positive outcome in our case is a precedent that will bless Anglicans across North America and through them, the larger Communion.
As faith-filled Anglicans in North America, we are excited for its future and our place within it. The Diocese of South Carolina can be an engine for Gospel ministry that holds the promise of even greater things for the Kingdom of God and worldwide Anglicanism. This is a struggle not just for the future of a single diocese, but for the future of a vital branch of the larger Body of Christ. It is our capacity to continue effectively in that ministry that is also at stake in this litigation, and why we continue.
All ministry comes at a cost. All witness of eternal significance involves sacrifice. We need look no further than the Cross. The congregations of this Diocese have sacrificed greatly of their time, talent and treasure, not only for their local ministries, but for the values at stake in this litigation. That fight is not over.
What can I do?
* Participate in ministry. In this time of testing for us as a Diocese, the key issue is whether we will focus on Gospel ministry or fret about the fate of our properties. The former is our Great Commission obligation, and within our control. The latter is beyond our control and challenges us to trust in God’s provision. May we all be found faithful putting the first things first.
* Continue to faithfully support the work of your parish. No one’s giving today is in danger of going to TEC tomorrow. But our failure to be faithful stewards of our God given resources can cripple our ability to do Gospel ministry today.
* Stay aware of what’s happening. Your parish and the Diocese will communicate regularly about legal events. Invest the time to understand them well enough to participate fruitfully in the life of the parish. And when you encounter issues you don’t understand, speak directly with your parish clergy. If you have concerns, or misunderstandings develop, they can only be resolved if you bring them forward.
* Pray for all parties in this ongoing conflict. Your parish and Diocesan leadership particularly need your prayers. This is every bit, if not more, a spiritual battle as well as a legal one. Our attorneys also need your prayers. May God grant us all wisdom and discernment as we take the next steps and seek to follow God faithfully.
How did we get here?
Conflict between The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Diocese goes back long before our disassociation in 2012. By actions of its Diocesan Convention (the people of the parishes gathered together) we voted collectively, and repeatedly, over the years to differentiate ourselves from actions taken by TEC. The proof that our theological differences (and resulting practice) would no longer be tolerated in TEC, came when the attempt was made in 2012 to remove our Bishop. Only then did the Diocese, by action of its elected Standing Committee, affirmed by the chosen delegates at Diocesan Convention, act to end our voluntary association with TEC.
Every congregation of the Diocese was then free to choose whether it would remain with the Diocese or return to TEC. About 80% of the parishes and missions, by votes of their vestry or congregation, chose to depart with the Diocese (a process NEVER used by the congregations which remained in TEC.).
The near immediate response to our corporate decision was the use of the Diocesan name, seal and other identifying marks by a ‘rump’ group, long prepared, presuming to act in the name of this Diocese. The legal tactics employed, not surprisingly, were the same ones previously used by TEC against other faithful congregations and dioceses across the country seeking to leave the denomination.
Our response in January 2013 was to ask the South Carolina courts for a “declaratory judgement.” The law at that time, and up until the 2017 South Carolina Supreme Court ruling, was clear. As incorporated religious non-profits we had followed all appropriate steps to change our governing documents to disassociate from TEC, and our names and properties continued to belong to us. We asked nothing from those returning to TEC except the freedom to go in peace. The original trial court ruling in 2015 affirmed that understanding of existing state law. It also granted a permanent injunction protecting our right to our names and trademarks.
In August 2017, the State Supreme Court reversed that ruling in part, contradicting its own standing precedent for settling church property issues, that of using the same principals employed to settle any other ownership question. A plurality of the justices, in a fractured ruling with five separate opinions and two conflicting legal standards, suggested that TEC had a trust interest in the property solely because the denomination claimed to have it. Because we believe this contradicted the 1979 Jones v. Wolf decision by the U.S. Supreme Court we petitioned for their review.
Why had we appealed to the US Supreme Court?
On August 2, 2017, in a divided (3/2) opinion, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that The Episcopal Church has a trust interest in some parish properties. That decision, if applied, would transfer the ownership of 28 church properties and the beneficial use of Camp St. Christopher to The Episcopal Church. This split decision overturned a lower court’s ruling, based on existing court precedent, that most of the churches in the Diocese, after successfully withdrawing from The Episcopal Church, keep their properties.
Our motions for reconsideration of this ruling by the State Court, filed September 1, 2018, addressed the significant issues of conflict of interest of one of the justices, as well as the religious freedom imperiled by the court’s ruling. The churches choosing to leave The Episcopal Church (TEC) have been told they must now relinquish their property to the national denomination. We “believe strongly that churches freely associated with each other can also freely choose to disassociate. And the exercise of that freedom should not come at the price of the tools for ministry established by local sacrifice… ” [p. 4, amicus brief] That is an important principle on its own.
Equally problematic is how the Court arrived at this decision. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Jones vs. Wolf established the use of neutral principles of law to settle church property disputes. “A court applying a neutral principles approach can only apply state law as it normally would; any other approach would be the opposite of neutral principles.” [p. 9] Property ownership for churches must be established by all the same familiar standards used for over 300 years. In contrast, the current ruling presumes special, deferential treatment for TEC, because it claims to be “hierarchical”.
Accepting this claim illustrates why neutral principles were developed. Showing deference, as the Court has done in this case, has unacceptable consequences. “Giving legal effect to trusts declared in denominational documents is not even mere deference. It is giving denominations power to rewrite civil property law.” [p. 14] More to the point, “If ownership no longer turns on publicly recorded deeds and trust instruments, but on the meaning of internal church rules and relationships, no one can know for certain who owns church property.” … “Any denomination could pass a retroactive internal rule that would appropriate congregants gifts and church property.” [p. 18] For the protection of all the churches in this state, such an outcome is an intolerable precedent.
And the potential injury to churches doesn’t end with this initial threat to property ownership. “… the Court’s fractured decision leaves church property law in this state in utter confusion…. This confusion is a recipe for endless litigation.” [p. 2] And all this is with “not a single justice agreeing as to exactly how State title and property law apply in this dispute.” [p. 19]
Despite these significant objections to their ruling, on November 17, 2017 the State Court ruled that it had denied our motions for recusal and rehearing.
Why did we disassociate from The Episcopal Church in the first place?
The Diocese of South Carolina disassociated from the Episcopal Church (TEC) when TEC attempted to remove the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence as the Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. This was intended as the first step in the removal of the Bishop and taking control of both the Diocese and our parishes. Why would TEC seek control of the Diocese? This Diocese has held firm to positions of theology, morality and polity increasingly at odds with the rapidly changing and unprecedented positions of TEC. The attempt to remove the Bishop was clear evidence there was no longer a place for us within TEC, so we exercised our legal right to end that voluntary association. Over 80% of the parishes and members of the Diocese affirmed that decision.
“The denomination has been redefining itself since the 1970s effectively evolving into two churches under one roof – a traditional one that embraced historic Anglican doctrines and a modernist one. In the 1990s, for example, TEC’s then-Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Frank Griswold, proclaimed that “truth,” is “pluriform.” This meant the church recognized no single truth, no single theology, no single pathway to salvation. He effectively said that one person’s truth is as good as another’s. And many of us found that to contradict everything we believe as Anglicans.”
“It’s true that we live in a nuanced, multicultural world, but traditional Anglicans believe in the authority of Scripture. For us, a belief in Christ is fundamental to the faith, not one of several optional paths to salvation. It is why we are Anglicans, rather than Unitarians or Buddhists or Hindus or something else.”
“In a 2006 interview with Time magazine, the [then] Presiding Bishop, the Most. Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori, a strong pluriform proponent claimed that to believe, as Jesus said, that He is “the way the truth and the life no one comes to the Father but through Him,” was to put God in an “awfully small box.” That denial of Jesus’ essential role clearly displayed the difference between traditional and modernist or pluriform Anglicans/Episcopalians.”
How do we now plan for ministry going forward?
While the future of our buildings is uncertain the primary work of Gospel proclamation has not changed. Our worship and ministry will continue. Bishop Lawrence urged churches to continue planning for future ministry realizing that the location of that ministry may be changed. This decision is a check for all of us of both our priorities and the source of our faith. As the Bishop has observed, this is a test of whether we believe what we have been preaching. If we win, we win. If we lose, we win. Whatever the outcome, we will emerge on the other side stronger and more effective disciples, prepared for the work to which God now calls us.
Is it true that some parishes were able to keep their property? Which churches are they?
The court ruled that eight churches had not acceded to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church. The latter document contains the so called “Denis Canon” which asserts that all parish properties are held in trust for The Episcopal Church. The congregations ruled to be free from that trust claim are: Christ the King Grace Church, Waccamaw; St. Matthew’s Church, Darlington; St. Andrew’s Church, Mount Pleasant; St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Conway; Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church, Georgetown, St. John’s Church, Florence, Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston and St. Matthias Church, Summerton.
Why didn’t we accept the “settlement offer” made to our parishes in 2015?
This question is answered in detail here, but, in essence, the offer lacked proof of authority from TEC.
The offer did not come with authority to bind all parties on the other side. TEC is the only party that claims a property interest in the parish properties via the Dennis Canon, yet counsel for TEC did not sign the offer. Counsel for TEC was contacted to request that they sign the offer and provide the necessary proof of authority. They never did either.
It should be noted that TEC has never, in the 90+ cases litigated nationwide, agreed to a settlement – even when it was requested. For these reasons stated above, the proposal was unanimously rejected by all parties to the litigation for the Diocese of South Carolina
Is there any hope for negotiations in future with TEC?
If history is any indicator, this seems unlikely. The current provisional bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Skip Adams had this very same opportunity to negotiate a settlement with a departing congregation in his diocese of Central New York. He chose not only to reject the parish’s offer to buy back their property at market value, but sold the church building to a Muslim worshipping community at a lower price. Every public statement by TEC to date has made clear that their only goal in mediation is the implementation of the state Supreme Court ruling. “Reconciliation” means simply our surrender and return, without conditions, to TEC.
Since we joined ACNA, does this provide us with any support?
We are thankful to our brothers and sisters in Christ, throughout the Anglican Communion, who hosted a day of fasting and prayer on behalf of the Diocese of South Carolina last fall. Our Bishop has received many emails, phone calls and notes from fellow Bishops and Anglicans around the world who stand with us as we seek to glorify God in proclaiming Jesus as the true and only way to the Father. In addition, many clergy who led their parishes out of TEC and left their properties, have shared the benefits of their experience to the parishes of this Diocese. It is encouraging to be part of this global body of faith and to know we have their ongoing prayers and support.
Isn’t this really all about sexuality?
No. While that is one issue about which we are in disagreement with TEC, it is not the central issue, just a symptom of the deeper divisions. We believe God has revealed in scripture a model for living that is in keeping with His created order, is subject to His blessing and has the greatest likelihood of experiencing that wholeness of life we all crave. That happens to encompass, along with many other areas, our expressions of human sexuality. TEC has chosen the path of least resistance, opting to bless what the culture wishes to bless and avoiding the harder work of calling God’s children to repentance and amendment of life. This Diocese, because we uphold the inspired and authoritative character of scripture, continues to affirm the historic teaching of the Church in this and many other crucial areas. We do so because we believe it essential both to our love for God (the response of love is obedience) and because of our love for others (we wish for them what we believe is God’s best). Consequently, we will love and accept everyone who comes through our doors, whatever their sexual orientation. But what we will tell them, as we tell every other sinner redeemed by grace, is that we are called to amendment of life, a new life, in Jesus Christ.
How is our standing within the Anglican Communion?
As a member Diocese of the ACNA, we continue in close fellowship with both the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans (GAFCON) and the Global South Primates. We look forward to continuing in partnership with these brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe. The Diocese has received letters of support from Anglican primates around the world who recognize that we – like four other former TEC dioceses and at least 200 Episcopal parishes – have disassociated from the Episcopal Church over differences with its interpretation of theology, which many in the global Anglican community consider to be unorthodox. Our relationships with Provinces across the Anglican Communion are numerous and strong. View the letters of support.
If we have left TEC, why do we still use the word “Episcopal” in our names and in our documents?
The term exists in the legal incorporated names of our Diocese and many of our parishes. The churches and the Diocese were always “episcopal” by name from their first founding, going back in some cases to the 1680’s. Its application is far broader than and not exclusively franchised by TEC. It is rightly used to designate any church that has bishops, for that is what the term refers to in the Greek and Latin from which the English word is derived. The episcopos is the bishop. An Episcopal church is simply one that has bishops. We continue, both as a diocese and as parishes to be that kind of church. This is both our legal and ecclesiastical heritage and we embrace it as such.
Updated August 2, 2018