The season of our discontent
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
— Jeremiah 29:11
“Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
— Matthew 10:16
This has been an arduous time for the Anglican diocese of South Carolina and its churches since parting ways with the national Episcopal Church. Questions abound, rumors are rife, outcomes uncertain. Most recently, on June 11, the United States Supreme Court denied what is called a writ of certiorari, an appeal by our diocesan legal team to adjudicate the three-to-two decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court giving all diocesan property, including Camp Saint Christopher, to the national Episcopal Church. On the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court decision was rendered, a Facebook post by Charles Waring offered this perspicacious insight: “Certiorari denied; expect a lot of predictions that will be wrong … God has a plan we do not yet know.”
Still, breaking news on weighty matters engenders speculation. According to one source, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, on hearing the Supreme Court’s decision, declared the matter now closed. At my own church, St. Michael’s, a parishioner called the church office asking that her tithing check be destroyed in anticipation that the church’s assets would be immediately frozen by the Episcopal Church. Both reactions are incorrect. A resolution, in whatever form it may take, is still hovering out on the horizon somewhere. There are lots of moving parts and many miles to go before anyone sleeps. What, then, can we know?
In addition to Bishop Mark Lawrence’s strong and lucid communication on the Anglican diocese web page on June 14, I’m sure that all of the churches in the diocese have received clarifying communications from their respective leaders. It is in the interest of reaching a broader audience that I have been asked by the Compass to offer a lay person’s perspective, from the “50,000-foot level,” on the lay of the land as it appears to me. As an interested parishioner and as a member of the vestry at St. Michael’s, I have been following these matters closely during the past four years, though I have no particular provenance in either legal or theological arenas. It is then with a healthy dose of humility that I offer the following observations.
The first point, which has been made by Bishop Lawrence and others, is to realize that the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear the case is neither an affirmation of the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision or a rejection of the position taken by the Diocese. It is a decision not to hear a case, not a rendering of opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. The case is now remanded to the Court of Common Pleas (First Judicial Circuit) in Dorchester County whose charge will be to interpret the ruling of the S.C. Supreme Court.
This will not be a simple task. Complicating matters is that the three-to-two decision of the state Supreme Court was followed by the writing of five separate opinions, a highly unusual and perhaps unprecedented event in South Carolina judicial history. Once the case gets on the court’s docket — which in itself may prove to be a time consuming process — legal teams on both sides will undoubtedly be making motions and counter motions. Prevailing opinion is that nothing definitive will be resolved much sooner than a year’s time; and hopefully the process will not morph into Bleak House proportions!
A salient issue beneath the interpretive umbrella involves something called the Dennis Canon, which featured prominently in the state Supreme Court case. In brief, this is a provision passed by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 1979 creating a trust whereby any Episcopal parish, mission, or congregation, on separating from the national Episcopal Church, would forfeit its property. At question in the state Supreme Court case was which churches in the Anglican Diocese had formally agreed (acceded) to place themselves under the terms of the Dennis Canon. Here again the opinions of the justices were sharply divided and there appeared to be no clear criteria by which churches were deemed to have acceded the Dennis Cannon or not. So, whereas the Court of Common Pleas cannot overturn a Supreme Court decision, it is in its proper authority to interpret that decision and an interpretation favoring those churches (28) claiming not to have acceded to the canon would dramatically change the contours of the diocesan landscape.
And there’s more. Under the terms of South Carolina’s Betterments Clause, a lawsuit has been filed with the Court of Common Pleas which would require the national Episcopal Church to compensate Anglican churches whose property they might receive for improvements adding to the property’s value. That could be expensive. And although it is not possible to predict the outcome of any lawsuit, it is not difficult to imagine appeals being filed irrespective of what a verdict might be. And meanwhile, over in Federal Court, another law suit is grinding its way through the system concerning the question of who has rights to the Diocesan Seal and matters pertaining thereto. Intellectual property, in other words.
In the meantime, the Anglican churches in the diocese will continue to function as they always have: preaching and teaching under the authority of scripture, discipling and pursuing their respective missions. No frozen assets, no one showing up at the church door with an eviction notice. Should that day come, all we can know for certain is that current clergy would be dismissed and replaced by Episcopal clergy. Retention of staff would depend on the size of the congregation left to support the church. Some properties, based on practices elsewhere, might be sold or used for other purposes. The remaining churches would in effect become new congregations within the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. The Anglican Diocese would continue as it has been, though its congregations would be in different physical locations.
So, we have many moving parts and much uncertainty; and uncertainty both enervates and breeds discomfort, especially for those who will be most affected by a final decision. Solace, however, may be found in scripture, whether in the epigraphs at the beginning of this article or in passages of one’s own choosing. “Fear not,” is a phrase frequently used in the Bible to encourage and embolden those in doubt or crisis and can also give us assurance of our faith in God’s plans and that we will indeed see them as good when they are fully revealed. “Plans for good and not for evil,” Anglican or Episcopalian, believer or doubter, perfect plans for all of creation. Thanks be to God.
Dr. Leland H. Cox is principal consultant for Cox Wisdom Works, LLC, offering consulting services to schools and non-profit organizations with an emphasis on strategic processes, governance, core identity, constituent service and mission focus. He is also available as a speaker/presenter and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.