Episcopal Church wins court victory in long-running battle with conservatives

Conservative parishes in America that split from The Episcopal Church over issues such as gay priests cannot take their buildings and land with them, a court has ruled in what could be a pivotal decision for future US Anglican fissures.

The Diocese of South Carolina was received into the breakaway Anglican Church in North America at ACNA Provincial Assembly in June.Diocese of South Carolina

The Diocese of South Carolina, which contains around 50 churches and 20,000 parishioners, left the national Church body  in 2012 and is now part of the breakaway Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

The long-awaited and complicated ruling means the diocese, which dates back to 1785 and was on the of the first to join and form The Episcopal Church, will not be allowed to keep its $500million worth of Church property.

The split decision at South Carolina Supreme Court overturns a previous lower court ruling in favour of the conservatives.

Now dozens of ACNA churches will have to return their property to The Episcopal Church and only those that didn't sign an agreement, known as the Dennis Canon, allowing the national Church to hold their properties in trust, will be able to keep them.

In a rare move that highlights the complexity of the case, all five of the court's justices wrote individual opinions with the final ruling on physical church property split 3-2.

However they were split 2-2 with one abstention when it came to intellectual property. That means the earlier judge's ruling that the breakaway church can keep the official Diocese of Carolina's name, trademark and seals still stands.

Skip Adams, bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, said: 'We are grateful for this decision and for the hard work of the court in rendering it.'

'We also give thanks to God for the faithfulness, support, and sacrifices of countless Episcopalians within our diocese and throughout the church.'

The dispute has raged since the diocese chose to leave TEC in 2012 and comes as conservative Anglicans in the UK are threatening a similar style split to that in the US.

Led by Dr Gavin Ashenden, 23 conservative clergy wrote a letter to the Telegraph warning of a 'declaration of independence' from vicars who feel that those with traditional views are being 'marginalised' by the Church's leadership.

It concludes by raising the prospect of a split in the Church of England, similar to that which took place in the North American Anglican Church.

Ashenden told the Telegraph that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was 'under notice'. He said: 'This is a warning that the Archbishop is under notice that unless he leads the Church in a way that remains consistent with the values and authority of the Bible, as opposed to progressive secularism, he will risk some kind of revolt in the form of an independence movement.'