“Conflicting rulings leave church dispute unsettled”
Recent letters to the editor suggest that because the United States Supreme Court denied our petition for review, the legal questions between the Diocese of South Carolina and The Episcopal Church (TEC) are settled and all that remains is return of the property. As the elected leaders of our congregations (St. Michael’s, St. Philip’s and the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul) we have a far different perspective.
While the denial of our petition means the five opinions of the South Carolina Supreme Court justices will not be reviewed, it was not an affirmation of them. The same day, the court also declined to review a Minnesota church case with the same facts but an opposite outcome to ours. All the denial means is that the court was unwilling to resolve this conflict between the lower courts.
So why do we continue in our legal defense? Our houses of worship, established by faithful generations before us, are worth preserving for our children and grandchildren. And the faith we proclaim there, the immutable Gospel of Christ, is worth defending.
Archbishop Nicholas Okoh of Nigeria said last week, at an international gathering of Anglicans in Jerusalem, “If we walk together with those who reject the orthodox faith, in word or deed, we have agreed that orthodoxy is optional.” We believe the divinity of Christ and the authority of Scripture must be upheld, not revised to suit the times. The Gospel ministry we share in our churches today, and the ministry these sanctuaries will enable tomorrow, is worth protecting.
We believe that the grounds for doing so remain strong. As TEC itself argued in its Brief in Opposition before the United States Supreme Court, the South Carolina ruling is “fractured.” Among the five separate opinions, promulgated after two years of wrangling, there is no majority legal opinion. The conflicts of interpretation among the five opinions are significant.
One key example illustrates this well. In the deciding opinion on the parish property issue, Chief Justice Don Beatty said only parishes that acceded in writing to the Dennis Canon created a trust. None of our parishes signed such a document. To our knowledge, no congregation in our Diocese did so. On that basis, what the ruling says is that no congregation should lose their property. This is one of the many difficulties that must still be resolved by a state court.
Many of our congregations have been faithfully proclaiming the Gospel here for over 300 years, through earthquake, fire and flood. We will pass through this challenge as well and look forward, God willing, to another 300 years of faithful proclamation. We pray that The Episcopal Church will respect the path of faithfulness we have chosen, as parishes and as a Diocese. For those truly concerned to heal fractured relationships, this is the shortest road to that destination.
–Penn Hagood is senior warden of St. Philip’s Church. Heidi Ravenel is junior warden of St. Michael’s Church. Todd Lant is senior warden of the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul.