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South Carolina Supreme Court rules property belongs to The Episcopal Church

South Carolina Supreme Court rules property belongs to The Episcopal Church

The South Carolina Supreme Court has issued its opinion in the property dispute between a breakaway diocese and The Episcopal Church. For both parties, the decision was a long time coming. The Court heard the case nearly two years ago.

AP has the story:

South Carolina’s top court has ruled that dozens of parishes that split with The Episcopal Church over theological issues including the ordination of gay priests cannot take valuable property with them.

The state Supreme Court made that decision Wednesday for 29 breakaway parishes that left the national church in 2012.

The Post and Courier:

In a highly anticipated ruling, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that 29 local parishes that left The Episcopal Church cannot take their property with them, a decision that could set the stage for a massive exchange of historic church properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, several parishes that broke away from the national church can take their properties with them because they never agreed to let the national church hold it in trust, unlike the others, a majority of justices ruled.

After hearing arguments in the case almost two years ago, the justices issued a complex 77-page divided opinion that leaves some of the Holy City’s most historic church properties in the hands of The Episcopal Church. Now-retired Chief Justice Costa Pleicones wrote in the lead opinion that he would reverse the entire lower court order that allowed parishes that left the national church to take church properties, the diocesan name and identifying marks with them.

St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center is included in the properties that must be returned to the Episcopal Church.

Both parties have 15 days to ask for a rehearing.

There is also a long-stalled case before a federal court over trademarks of the diocese. It is expected there will be movement in that case now that the state court has ruled. However, writing for the majority on the state Supreme Court, Acting Justice Pleicones states “the trial court erred in holding that the Respondents’ state-registered trademarks prevail over TEC’s federally-protected trademarks, and therefore would also reverse that portion of the order. ”

At the heart of Pleicones’ opinion is the Court’s earlier decision in Court’s decision in All Saints Parish Waccamaw v. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, 385 S.C. 428, 685 S.E.2d 163 (2009) (All Saints) and application of the Supreme Court of the United States case Jones v. Wolf. Pleicones notes that following All Saints the diocese took steps that led to its breakaway from the Episcopal Church. Regarding All Saints he writes,

I would now overrule All Saints to the extent it held the Dennis Canon and the 1987 amendment to the Lower Diocese’s Constitution were ineffective in creating trusts over property held by or for the benefit of any parish, mission, or congregation in the Lower Diocese. The result in All Saints was obtained without considering the religious documents and texts, including the Diocesan Constitution, which formed the foundation of the relationships between All Saints Parish, the Lower Diocese, and TEC, and by ignoring the premise of Jones that a hierarchical church could direct the disposition of property in case of a schism with a minimal burden. Specifically, All Saints failed to acknowledge that, as a matterof church governance and administration, All Saints Parish had agreed to be bound by the “trust terms” found in the Dennis Canon and the Diocesan Constitution through its voluntary promises of allegiance, upon which the hierarchical church is founded, and by its conduct in remaining affiliated with TEC after 1979, and with the Lower Diocese after 1987. All Saints‘ failure to consider the entirety of these ecclesiastical relationships, the governing documents, and the parties’ conduct, aswell as the assurances given  the Jones‘ majority that a hierarchical church could direct the ownership of property in the case of a schism, led to a violation of the command of Pearson that a court look at the entirety of the dispute, including the hierarchal church’s constitution, canons, and rules, before determining whether the dispute can be resolved purely by the application of state law.

Our earlier reporting on the case:

June 15, 2015, Breakaway diocese rejects settlement

September 23, 2015, Supreme Court of SC hears case

A statement from the loyal diocese urges a pastoral response:

A Message from Bishop Adams:

The South Carolina Supreme Court today issued a ruling in our appeal of the state court decision in Dorchester County, and that decision is generally in favor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. We are grateful for this decision and for the hard work of the court in rendering it. We also give thanks to God for the faithfulness, support, and sacrifices of countless Episcopalians within our diocese and throughout the Church.

This is a lengthy and detailed ruling, and our legal team and leadership will be studying it closely in the days ahead. It is important to note that the legal system allows for periods of judicial review and possible appeal, so it will be some time before we can say with certainty what the journey ahead will look like. Please be patient and know that we will keep you updated along the way as information becomes available to us.

As clergy and lay leaders, you are likely to have opportunities to respond to the ruling within your congregation, as well as to the wider public. As you consider what to say, please keep in mind that

– This ruling is one step on a longer journey and much is unknown at this point. Speculation will not be helpful.

– We can give thanks to God while avoiding excessive celebration. Kindness and graciousness are in order.

– Remember that our ultimate goal is reconciliation and unity, joining with our Lord in the desire that we all may be one.

– We ask for your ongoing prayer for the life of the Church in the service of Christ.

In the next few days, we will continue to communicate with the clergy and lay leadership about what is taking place. A formal statement from the Bishop’s Office will be issued to the public later today. We anticipate calling a meeting soon for diocesan leadership to review the decision, receive legal advice and consider the next steps.

The breakaway diocese issued this response:

On August 2, 2017 the South Carolina Supreme Court announced their ruling in the case involving the Diocese of South Carolina, its trustees and 36 parishes.

The issues in this case are complicated and our legal counsel is reviewing the ruling, its implications and deliberating the appropriate response.

We ask for your patience and call on of the clergy, laity and friends of the diocese to keep the matter in prayer.

Added 8:33 PM – another statement from the breakaway diocese.


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Kurt Hill

“Kurt Hill, George David Cummins was against ritualism; I am a follower of the Oxford Movement. However, good for him for breaking away when he could no longer accept the practices. John Wesley did the same.”—James Cummins

Hmm. What you think you “proved” to me and what you actually revealed to me are two different things, James.

A “follower of the Oxford Movement.” That’s an unusual formulation, James. Usually people call themselves High Church or Anglo Catholic. I identify more as High Church, since this tends to emphasize that the Catholic theological/liturgical viewpoint has been a part of Anglicanism/Episcopalianism from the very beginnings of the English Reformation. And also to emphasize that this tradition is not frozen in the Gothic Revival mode of 150 years ago.

Yes, George David Cummins was a central leader in the Schism of 1873, allegedly because the Episcopal Church had “given over” to Ritualism. I suspect, however, that more was afoot. It’s ironic though, isn’t it, that miters are no longer absent from the Reformed Episcopal Church, since its merger with the much more High Church Anglican Province of America? I am not the only one to notice that the raison d’etre of the REC is now totally compromised. One might even say it was totally betrayed.

Anyway, I firmly disagree with you that John Wesley “broke away” from Anglicanism. It was Thomas Coke (whose role was only to superintend) and Francis Asbury who were the movers and the shapers of the Methodist Schism in America. Both Charles and John Wesley remained priests of the Church of England until their dying days. In fact, one can argue that much of Evangelicalism in America has a High Church origin via Charles and John. The regressive, Calvinist Evangelicalism that so permeates much of the United States today was the product of George Whitefield, who wound up buried in a Presbyterian church.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

James Cummins

Kurt Hill, George David Cummins was against ritualism; I am a follower of the Oxford Movement. However, good for him for breaking away when he could no longer accept the practices. John Wesley did the same; do you condemn the Methodist Church as well? I proved to you that TEC has very strict beliefs in what is to be followed; I also showed you how its leadership no longer follows that. You do not have a right to condemn others for having a more stringent following. If you want to accept others, then you have to accept them for their beliefs. You think everyone should bend to suit you, and that what a bigot does. The Diocese of South Carolina does not preach to hate as you and your leadership have done. Now, let’s talk about theft. In 1951 a portion of Seabrook Island was willed to the Diocese of South Carolina; it was not given to TEC. It is on a portion of this land that Camp St. Christopher is located; therefore, by your own admission TEC is a thief for going after this land.

Mr. McDowell, TEC’s membership in the Anglican Communion has been suspended; TEC is simple an observer.

Eric Bonetti, you should call for TEC to make a full withdrawal from the Anglican Communion since it has suspended the participation of TEC related to same-sex marriages (See the Article listed above).

Prof Seitz, I haven’t seen any figures with regard to the membership of TEC or The Diocese of SC or the ACNA. The comment made by Kurt Hill suggests that certain folks are not welcome in certain churches. One doesn’t have to have a majority of a group to consider folks welcomed.

Gwen Palmer, I personally stopped attending ECUSA in 2009 when then PB made those statements that went against the teachings of the Church and choose to provide bitterness and hardship towards the congregations who chose to leave.

Let’s talk about history. How many of you even know that you are supposed to bow your head when “Jesus” is spoken? It’s for the same reason that you find the cross of St. Andrew on the ECUSA’s flag. If you don’t know, then you should learn about Samuel Seabury.

As for ownership, if you believe that the property doesn’t belong to the congregation, then you must believe that ownership of any church formed before 1776 is actually the property of The Church of England.

David Allen

You write some very strange history, which doesn’t seem to be the actuality on the ground. You must have missed the news releases last year after your NBC article was written about the fact that the Anglican Consultative Council chose to ignore the Primate’s Meeting’s directive and seated TEC as a full voice and vote member at ACC 16, as it has always been seated.

As to your misunderstanding about the property suits, TEC didn’t go after anything, it was the schismatics who filed the suits and asked the court to give them everything, including the camp. But in this decision, the SCSC said no, the camp belongs to TEC along with almost everything else.

Michael H C McDowell

Your rebuttal iS accurate and factual. The ACNA is NOT a member of the Anglican Communion, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said. Only the ECUSA is. As for the “suspension” of the ECUSA, this is a minor exclusion from a sub committee and frankly who cares, we are not pre-1776 colonies and are an independent church which makes its own decisions in our own country, The C of E was bent on a middle way to keep the reactionary and homophobic African bishops happy which is a fool’s errand. The SC breakaways have allied itself with the latter and now the Latin American ones and other renegades who don’t welcome gay people or clergy but condemn them.And it is tiresome to keep rebutting this lie — and that is what it is — that it was TEC which brought the suits. It was the breakaways! Why is this false news and alternative fact repeated so often? It is shocking. The woman (and she was a woman, and there were negative attitudes very much because she was female) Presiding Bishop, with the real ECUSA Bishop of SC offered the breakaways a real concession on property etc, but they arrogantly and stupidly rejected the compromise. Now, with the SC Sup Ct decision they are even worse off. The false advertising by the breakaways in using “Episcopal/Episcopalian” for years now and also claiming to be members of the Anglican Communion was deceitful and wrong. The so-called Diocese of SC (not) wants to turn the clock back on advances in human rights for gay men and women, no question and reaching back into the O T for justiification or even the N T just doesn’t hold intellectual rigor, particularly on the words of Jesus. There are precious few women clergy among this group or African Americans either. Fact. The ECUSA with its fault is INclusive, not EXclusive and it is pluralistic not reactionary.

Kurt Hill

“Are you suggesting that these congregations that left TEC only includes white, heterosexual, and conservative members?”—James Cummins

Hmm. In retrospect, James, I should have added “male” to that list. And, no, I believe it was a more clergy-driven schism than one from grassroots demand. You are welcome to your opinion, James, in matters theological and otherwise.

And, of course, it is always a pleasure to discuss matters with someone such as yourself, someone who so thoroughly knows the Mind of God. There was another Cummins who also had (or claimed to have, anyway) such miraculous discernment abilities—George David Cummins But, like the ACNA, he departed the Episcopal Church in schism and started his own little group, the remnants of which exist—sort of—to this very day.

I’m surprised, James, that someone so thoroughly endowed with Christian love and charity as yourself gives the ACNA a “pass” on the Decalogue. Most particularly those precepts which say: “You shall not steal”; and “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor;” and, of course “You shall not covet” your neighbor’s house, spouse, parish church, church assets, denominational name, etc., etc., Surely you can pray that the Holy Sprit will remove the bigotry and hatred from their hearts regarding TEC, can’t you..?

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Prof Christopher Seitz

PS–More african american bishops overall in ACNA, and more african american parishioners by percentage, is the point of comparison, to be more specific.

I welcome correction over whether there are more african american parishioners in EDSC than in individual NE dioceses, but my hunch is that is a correct statement, having spent time in both regions.

Prof Christopher Seitz

Mr Cummins, further to your point, if we are counting african american Bishops and parishionners, given the presence of the Reformed Episcopal Church, there are more non-white members in ACNA than in TEC.

I would also be curious whether there are not more african american episcopalians in the EDSC than in most NE dioceses.

It is very easy to engage in sloganeering at a distance. Your call for prayer is the only tonic, for all on all sides.

Michael H C McDowell

Professor Seitz, with respect, you need to cite serious numbers in these comparisons you are making. Among the clergy of the breakaways there are hardly any African Americans, and few women. Where do you get this information you cite about large numbers of AAs among parishioners? This would surprise me. And as for black parishioners in the ECUSA the number may be small but many of them are gay men or women who were not welcome in black churches; I have met them in our own thriving large DC church, St. John’s Lafayette Square opposite the White House. The breakaways also sought strong links with homophobic African bishops and then lately Latin American bishops. I have also attended a service in one of the historic Charleston churches seized by the breakaways and there were a handful of AAs among the fairly large congregation. Thanks for your comments.

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