A recent state circuit court decision on rights to church properties was a major win in the eyes of many for a state church district of about 50 congregations that split from the national Episcopal Church in 2012.
As it stands now, those churches …
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As it stands now, those churches will be able to maintain their properties and buildings - some more than 100 years old with upscale monetary values - and not have to turn them over to the larger group that pointed to a trust interest from 1979 over its former parishes.
But was, and is, the legal battle - which will likely continue - really about property after all?
The Rev. Marcus Kaiser, rector of Church of the Holy Comforter in downtown Sumter, spoke reflectively Friday on the back-and-forth legal case the breakaway Anglican Diocese of South Carolina has faced with its properties in an eight-year dispute with The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
Since the diocese left The Episcopal Church in 2012 over growing theological divides, the larger Episcopal body has argued a total of 28 parishes should be returned to it based on a 40-year-old canon it had created. That national canon, the 1979 Dennis Canon, alone was sufficient to create a trust under South Carolina law, according to The Episcopal Church.
If that were to happen, Sumter's Holy Comforter would have to give up its property and buildings.
Two weeks ago, on June 19, S.C. First Circuit Judge Edgar W. Dickson rejected that argument, explaining that "the Dennis Canon by itself does not create a legally cognizable trust, nor does it transfer title to property."
Jim Lewis, who serves under the bishop of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina based in Charleston, said the canon claimed to have a trust interest in everyone's property, but it didn't because no one agreed to it.
"Under South Carolina law, that would be the equivalent of you declaring you have a trust interest in your neighbor's pickup truck without him ever agreeing to it," Lewis said. "In South Carolina, you can't do that. The only way to get a trust interest in somebody's property is that they have to agree to it in writing. In the case of this Dennis Canon, no one ever agreed to it. And Judge Dickson went to great lengths in his opinion to document that it never happened."
The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina have already filed a motion against the judge's ruling in the circuit court, and the case will likely go before the state Supreme Court again, as it did a few years ago, both Lewis and Kaiser conceded.
'Battles for the Gospel'
As the legal wrangling continues, Kaiser describes it has been like a "journey" and there have been many lessons learned. It's been "stressful" and "a difficult time to minister," but he said he's thankful to God for it.
Kaiser said he and his church have also learned it's not about the building.
"It seems like it is about property," Kaiser said. "But it's not really about that. For us, it's about are you willing to lose your property for the sake of what you believe. That's been the question for us all along. Are you willing to risk it all for the sake of your beliefs?"
Since the early 2000s, Kaiser detailed The Episcopal Church, through its triannual General Convention, was making decisions to parse biblical Scripture to fit a modern understanding.
"That's a worldview clash that was coming like a freight train," Kaiser said, "and it came to a head in 2012."
Through the years, The Episcopal Church has ordained gay bishops and permitted the blessings of same-sex marriages. Kaiser said Church of the Holy Comforter and the evangelical state diocese belong to the view that it was "under the authority of Scripture."
"That means, if there is something in Scripture that I don't like, it's on me to try to understand it," he said. "It's not on God to change it."
Tension developed with the larger church on several matters, not just sexual orientation, Kaiser said. The question became "How do we keep Holy Comforter in this church?" and a split had to happen, he added.
"On lots of different issues, we just couldn't get past the plain word of Scripture," Kaiser said.
He said he's humbled that God has allowed him to be a part of this history.
"History already talks about 9/11, and 'What you were doing, and where were you?' and everybody has got a story," Kaiser said. "And history, at least in our little corner of the Church universal, is we are going to be talking about, 'Where were you and what were you doing during the battles for the Gospel that took place in the early 21st Century?"
The lawsuit and other events, such as South Carolina's 1,000-year flood of 2015, Hurricane Floyd in 2016 and now the pandemic, have also been lessons about learning to let go and let God be in control.
"There has been all of these things that make us realize that our security in the buildings was all an illusion to begin with," Kaiser said. "This is going to pass. One day, this beautiful building won't be here any longer. I don't know when. But God's word lasts, and we can trust Him for the long run, and that means eternity."
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