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All Saints groups reach accord on land dispute

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A legal dispute over the All Saints church property that wound through the courts for almost a decade ended last week with an agreement between the leaders of the two congregations that claimed ownership of the historic parish.

Members of All Saints Waccamaw Parish voted in 2004 to leave the Episcopal Church in the U.S. and join the Anglican Mission in the Americas, which is headquartered on the church grounds. A group of parishioners reorganized the Episcopal parish, and brought suit to reclaim the church property on Kings River Road.

A Circuit Court judge upheld the Episcopal parish’s claim, but that decision was overturned by the state Supreme Court. The Episcopal parish appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in February.

Last week, clergy and vestry of the Anglican and Episcopal parishes agreed to end the litigation. The Anglicans will continue to own the property, estimated in court documents to be worth $10 million, but will allow its use by the Episcopal Church members who have “historic ties” to the property. The Anglican vestry will give the Episcopal parish $375,000 “to assist in their future ministry in the community,” according to a letter from the Anglican rector, the Rt. Rev. Terrell Glenn.

The Episcopal parish will give up their claim to the All Saints name.

“The All Saints name is a wonderful name,” said Rick Bruce, senior warden of the Episcopal parish. “But it’s been very confusing to anyone outside of either parish for a number of years.”

The Episcopal parish last week withdrew its petition for a hearing by the Supreme Court.

The request was never seen as a bargaining tool, Bruce said. At the time it was filed, the parishes were talking, but hadn’t reached accord.

“Sunday a week ago we had a sit-down with the rector and wardens and said ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Bruce said.

Since it was announced to both parishes last week, and quickly circulated among Web sites that follow the fissures in the Episcopal Church, people have told Bruce it was something that could have been done long ago.

“No, it couldn’t,” was his reply.

“I really think the last six months, as excruciating as it was to be in the middle of it, there was a spiritual transformation that took place,” Bruce said.

There have been numerous conversations between the two parishes and “lots of offers put on the table,” Glenn said. “There were different seasons of receptiveness.”

He noted that the Supreme Court receives many petitions, but hears only a small number. “What our vestry had to do was come to a point where it wasn’t only about certification being denied,” Glenn said.

Instead, the Anglican parish leaders shifted their focus to reconciliation and “what kind of testimony are we leaving,” he said.

“Both vestries came to a place where we mutually recognized we wanted all of this to be over,” he said.

All Saints Parish dates to the mid-18th century, and many residents and others with ties to the area have connections to the church that extend across generations.

Letters to parishioners from Glenn and the Very Rev. Ed Kelaher, the Episcopal rector, acknowledged that some people would be unhappy with the decision.

“All of us are all too aware of the unresolved conflicts, broken relationships and compromised testimony that are a result of this ten-year ordeal,” Glenn wrote.

But both parishes see the agreement as the start of reconciliation and cooperation.

“It’s been a process that brought a lot of people closer to understanding what we’re supposed to be doing,” Bruce said. “All we were talking about was property.”

Along with a new name, the Episcopal parish will look for a new and permanent home.

All Saints and its former rector, the Rt. Rev. Chuck Murphy, were in the forefront of a movement that challenged the national church on scriptural authority, particularly in regard to same-sex unions. That led to the formation of the Anglican Mission in 2000. The issue gained wider prominence with the consecration of the first openly-gay Episcopal bishop in 2003.

The legal dispute first arose in 2000, when the Diocese of South Carolina filed a notice in the Georgetown County Courthouse that said congregations held property in trust for the national church. This is one of the laws of the Episcopal Church, adopted in the diocese in 1987 and known as the Dennis Canon.

The parish claimed that the canon did not apply to it because the parish was created in colonial times before the Episcopal Church in the U.S. replaced the Church of England. A Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the parish, but the decision was appealed and remanded for a trial.

After the parish voted to leave the national church in 2004, the property suit with the diocese and the suit by the new Episcopal vestry were consolidated. A judge then ruled that the Episcopal vestry was the rightful owner of the 50-acre church property under a 1745 trust created when the property was conveyed.

The state Supreme Court said the judge erred by deferring to the authority of the diocese in church matters and holding that the 1745 trust was still valid. The high court said the parish had properly amended its charter to cut ties with the national church and so the Anglicans were the legal owners.

In its petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Episcopal parish claimed that conflicting interpretations of the Dennis Canon by state courts threaten First Amendment rights by failing to protect church property from “dissident parishioners.”

Left to stand, the state Supreme Court’s ruling on the Dennis Canon could have a profound effect on other Episcopal churches in South Carolina, Glenn said earlier.

But the All Saints agreement was tailored with only the two sets of parishioners in mind, Bruce said. “There’s no part of this decision that goes beyond the Georgetown County borders,” he said.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, bishop of South Carolina, announced the agreement at the diocesan convention last week.

“This has been a long and painful pathway to walk for those at All Saints Episcopal as they have stayed faithfully with the Diocese of South Carolina. They have often been misunderstood even by many within our own diocese, for one’s heritage, as any South Carolinian knows, is an almost unendurable thing to lose,” he said.

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