The state Supreme Court’s decision taking church buildings and millions of dollars of real estate from the Diocese of South Carolina prompted retired Chief Justice Jean Toal to call it “nothing less than judicial sanction of the confiscation of church property.”
The key to this unfortunate decision is the false assumption that the Episcopal Church is hierarchical. F.V. Mills’ Bishops by Ballot: an Eighteenth Century Ecclesiastical Revolution (New York: 1978) documents that the church’s founding fathers were adamant that they were establishing not a top-down but a bottom-up governance based on republican concepts “in place of hierarchical ones.”
No wonder delegates from Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina insisted at the organizing convention for the Episcopal Church that they have no bishops. The hostility toward tyranny was built into the church’s foundation, accepting only bishops whose authority would be “spiritual” and subject to checks and balances from the bottom up.
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As one who has taught history for more than two decades, I can confidently assert that the national church was carefully founded not to be an hierarchical church. We have never even called the presiding bishop an archbishop, as most Anglican provinces do. The one time the General Convention considered creating a truly hierarchical church (1898), the proposals were clearly and forthrightly rejected.
Practical examples of this reality abound. One is especially applicable: Several dioceses separated from the national church when their states seceded from the union; following the Civil War, they returned only after voting to do so. Such is the inherent independence of dioceses.
As a bishop in the Episcopal Church, I could never have imposed a candidate for rector on any parish; I could only suggest. Quite often, my suggestions were not followed. Nor could I simply remove a clergy person, no matter how badly the parish might wish it, without a long canonical procedure.
From start to finish, the history of the Episcopal Church testifies to a body that is not a hierarchy of the sort this court ruling has presumed. To dispossess at least 29 congregations and more than 20,000 worshipers on the basis of such a flawed understanding of history would be a terrible injustice.
C. Fitzsimons Allison
12th Bishop, retired, Diocese of South Carolina