What is a church? Is it a group of like-minded people? A set of common beliefs? A tradition? A building?
For so many South Carolina churches, the answer is a combination of all of those things, which makes the dispute over 29 properties between the Episcopal Church in South Carolina and the breakaway Diocese of South Carolina so painful.
The 29 properties in question have centuries of history. They have offered places of worship to generations of Charleston area families and helped shape the city’s spiritual culture almost since its founding. They are buildings and places, but they are much more than just walls and land.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling from August 2017 that granted control of the 29 disputed properties to the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which remains connected to the national Episcopal Church. The state Supreme Court also refused in November to rehear the case despite the fact that one of the justices involved in the August ruling, Kay Hearn, has ties to a church associated with the national Episcopal Church.
It remains unclear how the state ruling will be implemented. But now that the highest court in the land has decided against weighing in, leaders of both church groups in South Carolina must work together toward a reasonable and fair execution of the state ruling.
Though the rift is deep — the Diocese of South Carolina split from the Episcopal Church in 2012 and disagreements had roiled the relationship for years before that — there is still a chance for some measure of compromise. And that should be the goal.
After all, what is the worth of a church building with no congregation to worship there? Churches like St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s, both of which could be shifted to Episcopal Church ownership given the S.C. Supreme Court ruling, have tremendous historical and real estate value. At least $500 million in Lowcountry property is on the line.
But that monetary value pales in comparison to the significance longstanding church communities have to the people who have worshiped there for generations.
Without U.S. Supreme Court intervention, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina appears to have “won” this dispute in the courts. But leaving church families homeless and severing congregations from centuries of history would hardly be considered a victory. It must not be the final outcome of this difficult divorce.
Instead, church leaders have yet another chance to recognize the realities of the situation and move forward in a way that inflicts the least additional damage on Charleston’s spiritual fabric and religious history.
It is a shame that Charleston congregations have had to endure years of uncertainty and anguish while these disagreements have played out in courts. It is frustrating that the U.S. Supreme Court has chosen not to take a stand on behalf of freedom of conscience and the tremendous value of worshiping as part of a community of shared beliefs.
But further pain is not an inevitable outcome. Mutual respect and harmony are still possible. Reconciliation is still an option. The Christian values of love and goodwill do not require a court order.