Congregation Moves on After Settlement of Complex Lawsuit

By BRUCE MILLS, The Sumter Item

SUMTER, S.C. (AP) — Many Christians believe in the adage that “only God can turn a test into a testimony,” but two Sumter congregations have more than believed that in the last decade with their facilities. They’ve lived it.

The pastors of The Church of the Holy Comforter in downtown Sumter and The Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg sat down recently to discuss “the cloud” over their churches since 2013 from a legal battle about properties and how the conflict brought “a sense of clarity” to ministry.

On Aug. 17, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled six more parishes – including the two in Sumter – that broke away from The Episcopal Church in 2012 can keep their properties in a revision to the court’s ruling in April, when it seemed those churches were destined to lose their facilities.

In the complex case, the state’s high court had to create a new standard in its own words to determine under law whether congregations agreed to a 40-year-old canon that The Episcopal Church argued was sufficient to create a trust interest in property after a 2017 court ruling had five separate opinions from the justices.

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The four months of waiting and uncertainty for the two local churches between April and August were symbolic of the nine-year back-and-forth legal case the breakaway Anglican Diocese of South Carolina faced with its properties with The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The split from 2012 was over growing theological divides.

The Rev. Michael Ridgill of The Church of the Holy Cross and the Rev. David Booman of The Church of the Holy Comforter said the uncertainty made ministry more clear and “unifying.”

Booman has been at Holy Comforter since last year, and his only other position in full-time ministry was at another breakaway Anglican diocese in the state, St. Michael’s Church in Charleston.

His 10 years between the two churches “has not been easy, but I have seen time and again God use it for good,” Booman said.

“Especially here at Holy Comforter, I think it has enabled us to really get clarity on what is the mission, what are we about,” he said. “I think we have ultimately come through it all that whether we stay or whether we go, we are going to be focused on the mission of Jesus if we are in a church building or if we are meeting in a park under a tree. It’s all about the mission of Jesus, and I think our folks have really embraced that, and they have communicated that to me.”

Both pastors thanked other churches, even across denominations, for their prayers and offerings of support, including potentially sharing their worship space if they lose their properties.

Ridgill and Booman also see it as a “gift of grace” from God and humbling that their congregations are able to keep their facilities.

Both churches go back more than a century. The Church of the Holy Comforter’s sanctuary opened in 1909, and The Church of the Holy Cross’ facility was constructed in 1850. Both have upscale monetary values.

That is a common theme across the Anglican dioceses, and the state Supreme Court ruled eight congregations did create a trust and will be required to hand over ownership of their properties to The Episcopal Church. Some have already done so this summer.

“It’s humbling because it’s not like we are better than the other churches that lost their property, you know,” Ridgill said. “It’s humbling in the sense that we don’t deserve this, but then we never do. It’s always a gift. So, the question with it as a Christian is when we receive this gift of grace, we don’t keep it. We pass it on, and I think that helps us with our focus.”

Both pastors said dioceses across the state are reaching out to see how they can help the eight parishes that must transfer properties.

For the two local congregations, it is also a time now of “renewed excitement and possibilities” in reaching out to the Sumter community in new and creative ways.

It appears “the cloud” has been lifted for good now regarding parish properties, but the men said their congregations were prepared to “win or lose” in the case.

The mission and ministry are unchanged, Ridgill said.

“To have individuals and congregations live into that common mission and ministry, it’s a blessing,” he said. “When you are under the threat of losing your property, then you ask, ‘Well, what do we have left?’

“And what we have left is always the core, the people, and that hasn’t changed. So, I feel, either way, we are in a stronger position because of our circumstances.”

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