Judge’s decision sets up next step in Episcopal Church’s legal battle (copy) (copy)

The sun sets behind St. Philip's Church, a Charleston parish that cut ties with The Episcopal Church. 

The congregations of St. Philip’s, St. Michael’s, Grace, St. Mark's, Old St. Andrew’s and dozens of other Lowcountry churches have worshipped together for centuries. The oldest date back nearly to the city’s founding.

Those spiritual roots stretch beyond any particular building or property. They are priceless and intangible. They cannot be undone by any court ruling.

But the uprooting of some of those congregations would be a tragedy of historic proportions. It as an outcome that should be repellent to both sides of the church divide in South Carolina, and one that must be avoided through mediation that begins on Monday.

In August, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which could ultimately mean the loss of dozens of properties belonging to churches that chose to break away from the national Episcopal Church and form the separate Diocese of South Carolina. Some of those churches have since aligned with the Anglican Church.

The Diocese of South Carolina has called that 3-2 ruling into question because of state Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn’s involvement in the Episcopal Church. In fairness, the motion for a rehearing should be granted, and Justice Hearn should recuse herself. But the rehearing request has yet to be acted on.

The purpose of mediation beginning Monday is to determine how to implement the August decision as amicably as possible. Even so, it still offers an opportunity for the disaffected church groups to preclude further legal battles over the valuable and historic properties in question.

Neither the Diocese nor the Episcopal Church in South Carolina may ever bridge the spiritual and philosophical divides that caused their separation. Nor need they do so. Both groups are free to worship as they see fit — a principle enshrined in the Constitution.

But an agreement should be reached that lets the Diocese of South Carolina and the Episcopal Church in South Carolina part ways while remaining in the churches they have called home for so many generations.

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Failure to do so would do further harm to the Christian spirit of unity and goodwill that ought to bring Lowcountry churches together rather than tear them apart. Reaching a mediated accord could avoid years of additional lawsuits and appeals and divisions among friends and neighbors.

Congregations are more than four walls and a roof. Church homes are where congregants have gathered each week and marked countless milestones — baptisms, weddings, funerals — over the years and, in many cases, centuries. Losing that over even the most deeply held disagreement is unthinkable.

Both parties should diligently seek an accord in this week’s mediation that will allow congregations to worship in their church homes for centuries to come.