Future of historic church still in limbo

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By: Heather Ruppe

The future of one of Walterboro’s oldest and most historic churches continues to hang in the balance after a long-awaited ruling passed by the South Carolina Supreme Court last week.

Established in 1855 and located in the historic district of downtown Walterboro, St. Jude’s Church will be losing its rights to the property and church.

A legal battle has ensued between the Anglican and Episcopal churches for the last ten years. Historically, all churches were originally part of a trust that belongs to the National Episcopal Church. The battle was sparked by the separation of some parishes from the Episcopal Church, according to legal opinion. This separation prompted an ongoing legal battle about property rights.

St. Jude’s filed a petition for a rehearing by the Supreme Court on May 5, 2022. There has been no movement by the court since it was filed.

Some churches in the Lowcountry have already left their properties, leaving a number of them seeking other areas to worship in.

“What this means for us is that we have to wait for the court before any final plans are made,” says Rev. Newman H. Lawrence, rector of St. Jude’s Church in Walterboro. “We are in a place of waiting and praying that the Holy Spirit will guide us as to what happens next.”

According to Lawrence, who spoke to The Press and Standard on August 1, there is no timeline yet on when the church may have to leave, should the S.C. Supreme Court still rule against them.

Fourteen of the twenty-nine currently Anglican churches involved in this legal decision will lose all rights to their property and must begin the legal process of transferring their properties to the Episcopal Church as part of the S.C. Supreme Court’s original ruling. The impacted churches are scattered throughout the Lowcountry, from Charleston to Colleton counties. St. Jude’s is the only Anglican church in Colleton County impacted by the ruling.

The other half of the churches involved in the lawsuit will be unaffected by the Supreme Court’s ruling and retain their personal property. Based upon how the individual church laws, or “canons,” were written, those particular churches never conceded to the church law.

“The decision from the Supreme Court is a difficult one to have learned. Our hearts mourn the loss of historic buildings where we have worshiped for generations,” Lawrence said in a prior interview with The Press and Standard. “But, we know the church is more than a building. We will continue to gather and worship the risen Lord, wherever that may be.”

Legal counsel continues to weigh in on both sides of this case. Details include many “what if’s,” such as how the Anglican churches who are losing their properties will be reimbursed or compensated for “betterments” made during the ten years that this court case was being heard. These “betterments,” as they are called in the ruling, refer to physical improvements, expansions, and general upkeep of the church properties.

Other uncertainties include the future of parishioner grave sites that have been purchased and planned for by Anglican members, as well as current graves and cemeteries. The question also remains of whether the new owners of the church properties will allow the Anglican churches to remain as leaseholders.

“The ruling raises many issues that will have to play out in the coming weeks before any actions are taken, so our first response must be to quiet our hearts before the Lord as we pray for the grace to meet the days ahead,” state the Rt. Rev. Chip Edgar in his letter to all Anglican churches in the area. “Some of our churches are relieved that the court ruled their property does indeed belong to them. Some are grieving deeply, as the court’s ruling went in the opposite direction. Edgar continues, “The Lord has provided, and always will provide, all we need to proclaim the gospel, bind up the brokenhearted, heal the sick, set the captives free, do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.”

Edgar also asked for continued prayers “for those of us who are called to lead as we sort through the difficult decisions of the days ahead.

According to the S.C. Supreme Court, the fourteen Anglican churches that must hand over their properties to the Episcopal Church are:

The Church of the Good Shepherd in Charleston

The Church of the Holy Comforter in Sumter

St. Bartholomew’s Church in Hartsville

St. John’s Parish Church on John’s Island

St. Jude’s Church in Walterboro

St. Luke’s Church in Hilton Head

St. David’s Church in Cheraw

St. Matthew’s Parish Church in Fort Motte

Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church in Charleston

The Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg

Trinity Church in Myrtle Beach

Holy Trinity Church in Charleston

Christ Church in Mount Pleasant

St. James Church in James Island.

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