Since 2012, South Carolina Anglicans have been in legal dispute with the Episcopal Church. A mixed State Supreme Court ruling in April 2022 began the conclusion of the last major church property dispute in the North American Anglican realignment.
Of the 36 Anglican parishes that were parties in the South Carolina Episcopal Church lawsuit, 28 retained control of their church properties, including the historic St. Michael’s, St. Philip’s and Old St. Andrew’s churches in Charleston. The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina (ADOSC) counts a total of 53 parish and mission churches.
Of the eight ruled by the South Carolina State Supreme Court to lose control of their properties:
- Saint Matthew’s Church in Fort Motte reached an agreement with the Episcopal Church to purchase back church property and is engaged in a fundraising campaign to do so.
- Christ Church Mount Pleasant now meets in a school and announced in January the purchase of new land and the beginning of a building fund.
- St. David’s Church in Cheraw was able to retain ownership of the parish rectory and has a lease agreement for worship space with the local United Methodist congregation and office space with the Presbyterian Church in America congregation, among other local ecumenical partners providing support.
- The Church of the Good Shepherd in West Ashley filed a Petition for Rehearing asking the Court to reconsider an August 17 ruling awarding ownership of church property to the Episcopal Church. They await a decision of the court on rehearing (a tip of the hat to ADOSC Communications Director Joy Hunter for these reports).
The Episcopal Church also filed a Petition for Reconsideration and Rehearing in September, asking the Court to reverse their ruling regarding two Anglican parishes whose property rights were affirmed on August 17: Old St Andrew’s in Charleston (the oldest church building south of Virginia dating to 1706), and the Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg. Those parishes await court action.
St. John’s Parish Church on Johns Island was the first to turn over property to the Episcopal Church, leaving their historic building and grounds to begin meeting for services at a nearby middle school. An Episcopal Church-affiliated congregation began worship on the historic site July 17.
During his recent visit to Charleston for the Mere Anglicanism conference, Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) Archbishop Foley Beach preached at the invitation of the St. John’s congregation.
The decision of Archbishop Beach – who presumably would be welcome in the pulpit of any of the three dozen Charleston-area ACNA parishes – to preach at St. John’s Parish Church signaled care for and support of those who had lost properties.
“It was an incredible encouragement to have the Archbishop with us. We are humbled he chose to be with us,” St. John’s Rector Jeremy Shelton shared with me in an interview this week. “It’s been six months for us now and it has been an incredible blessing. It is difficult, for sure. But God is faithful and our congregation is growing in size, faithfulness, and unity. The Gospel speaks much louder than anything else.”
Shelton, who became St. John’s Rector at the time of the property handover, explained that the invitation for Beach to preach came about after a parish staff member suggested it. The Archbishop’s office circled back within a month, suggesting the weekend of January 29.
Johns Island is a formerly rural community that has quickly become a Charleston suburb. The fourth largest island on the United States’ East Coast, it now has a population nearing 30,000, a growth rate of 114 percent since 2000. Named for Saint John Parish in Barbados by the first English colonial settlers, there is a long history of Anglican worship on the island, with St. Johns Parish Church founded in 1734.
“Our neighbors are from Minnesota, New York, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania,” Shelton, who hails from Kentucky but has lived in South Carolina for nearly 20 years, tells me of his own residential subdivision on the island. “They are coming from everywhere.”
Asked about what has most surprised the congregation amidst the period following the property handover, Shelton answered that congregational unity has grown.
“We were essentially three different congregations worshiping in one space,” Shelton recounted of the church’s recent history. “We went from three different worship preferences to one, and there was almost no dissension at all. It has been such an incredible blessing.”
The relationship with the middle school began about 15 years ago when parishioners prayed together for the school, then scheduled to close, to remain open, leading parishioners to become more intimately involved. It now has a magnet program and is a School of Excellence.
“In 15 years, going from a school that was scheduled to be closed to being a School of Excellence is nothing short of miraculous,” Shelton says of the school where his oldest son was a student and another son is presently enrolled. “They were arms wide open from the moment I reached out to them.”
Shelton said that of the parish congregation, about 250 persons came to worship at the middle school cafeteria, while about a dozen remained with the building as it transferred to the Episcopal Church.
“We are seeing new people come almost on a weekly basis,” Shelton reported. “We hosted a newcomer’s lunch this past Sunday since we began at the middle school and there were about thirty [new participants].”
The transition has not been without challenges: school fire alarms displaced the congregation in the middle of reciting the creed on Sunday, only to recur two weeks later at the conclusion of a service. Worship in a school cafeteria also means visible chewing gum adhered to the bottom of folding tables that double as pews. But St. John’s has a history of making it work.
“We have people who have been members for 94 years that have left the historic buildings and grounds and are now worshiping in the cafeteria of the school,” Shelton notes. Longtime church members recall these aren’t the first challenges the parish faced: in the 1950s, limited space necessitated Sunday school classes meeting in an attic and a graveyard.
“We’ve always made it work,” an elderly parishioner recounted to Shelton. God, he insists, is faithful: “We’re not just making it work, we’re thriving, due to God’s faithfulness and the resolve of the congregation.”
One challenge has already been overcome: the parish initially utilized garages and living rooms for storage, but now a central home base has been established in Resurrection Hall, which houses offices, storage and a trailer at one central location less than a mile from the school.
“You can do anything for a little while,” Shelton laughs. “What we have seen is that simply being in the community, we are hosting bible studies in people’s homes but also coffee shops, restaurants and parks. People are seeing us out and that is a way of beginning conversations.”
Update: St. Matthew’s Church in Fort Motte has successfully completed a capital campaign to buy back their church building, graveyard and parish hall. More here.