Covering all sides

ChristChurchFollowing the departures of various parishes, the Episcopal Church is working hard to keep the parish properties from the groups that have joined other Anglican bodies. There has been lots of Washington-area coverage since many of the parishes are from Northern Virginia. But The New York Times‘ Brenda Goodman reports on a story out of Savannah, Ga. Here is how it began:

For 274 years, there has been one Christ Church here, and it is a congregation with a proud history.

Started with a land grant from King George of England and led by famous names like John Wesley and George Whitfield, Christ Church has been the spiritual home of some of this city’s most notable residents, including Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts.

So it was unsettling, to say the least, for some longtime members when Christ Church, which is believed to be the first church established in Georgia, voted recently to part ways with the Episcopal diocese it had been a part of for more than 200 years to join an Anglican diocese in Uganda.

“I just feel a tremendous loyalty to this church, and I am confused about this situation,” said Frances R. Maclean, 85, a member of Christ Church for 55 years who saw her children baptized and then married in its century=old chapel. “What is this business about Uganda?”

Nearly nine out of 10 members of the church voted to leave, so I find it interesting that the reporter uses an anecdote from the minority. The story is not about what happens to the losing side in votes to split from national church bodies (a most worthy angle) but, rather, about how the rifts have flooded courts with civil lawsuits over church property. The only other congregant quoted in the piece is likewise part of the minority who voted to remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church:

Speaking to her congregation on Oct. 14, just before congregants voted on the decision to disaffiliate with the Episcopal Church, Janet Stone, 63, a member of Christ Church since 1975, pleaded for unity.

“I beg you to stop this fight and seek reconciliation,” Ms. Stone said. “It would be a powerful witness.”

Moments later, 87 percent of the congregation voted to support the split.

Maybe next time the reporter can find one person from the 87-percent faction to discuss how they feel about being sued by the Georgia Diocese. Otherwise the entire human interest aspect of the story seems more than a bit one-sided.

Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a remarkably thorough story on the history and unknown future of church property disputes. Leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh have begun the process of leaving, as well a number of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations that have left for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. It could be decided on case by case:

The original deed for a church founded in the 1780s might say nothing about entrusting its property to a denomination. But if it purchased additional property later, that parcel might have been explicitly held in trust for a larger church body.

“Trust” is the key word. Some denominations have a constitutional clause saying that all church property is held in trust for the denomination. But in others, such as the Baptists or the United Church of Christ, there are no trust clauses. Over the past two years, for instance, about 15 congregations broke from the Penn-West Conference of the United Church of Christ. But there were no fights over who got the buildings.

Those who defend trust clauses say they honor and preserve the gifts that people made over generations for the work of their religious tradition.

“Courts have jurisdiction over dirt and land and property. But a church, a presbytery, a diocese, has to see the parishes as mission sites. They’re about sharing the gospel, not about real estate,” said the Rev. Mark Tammen, counsel to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Rodgers gives both sides, explaining that departing parishioners are the ones who feel that the national church bodies have abandoned all generations by compromising creedal Christian doctrine.

Some of the Presbyterian breakaway parishes have been able to buy their property from the national church body, Rodgers notes. She also explains the two primary ways civil courts evaluate property disputes — enforcing whatever the governing church body says, or on the basis of deeds and other legal documents. Laws and precedent on the issue are not very stable at the moment, the piece suggests. In one case where the Episcopal Church won a decision over a breakaway parish, the building now sits empty while the congregation worships nearby.

Rodgers’ piece is chock full of interesting details and analysis. Here she shows what the Diocese of Pittsburgh might face in the days to come:

In a speech to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, the denomination’s chancellor, David Beers, outlined steps that could be taken if a diocese attempts to leave. In addition to removing and replacing the bishop, lawsuits could be filed against the departing bishop, other leaders of the secession and a sampling of congregations that try to keep their property.

“We are quite frankly stunned to learn of the actions of priests and lay leaders who undertake to leave the Episcopal Church and yet to maintain control and ownership of church buildings and other assets that belong to the [Episcopal] Church and have been held by them only in trust,” wrote attorneys Josephine Hicks and John Vanderstar, who serve on the denomination’s Executive Council, in response to a critical letter from several retired bishops Thursday.

Rodgers makes the case that these disputes could be decided in many different ways. Hopefully reporters will keep on the stories as they progress.

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  • Andy

    Seems simple, if your group leaves the church, it leaves the building behind too. If you renounce your membership, walk out of the building and don’t come back.(or try and buy the empty shell back at the upcoming auction for the property)

    Some people are letting their greed get ahead of their conscience. If they have the courage of their convictions, rent a hall and worship there, things will fall into place soon enough. Any decently run church can afford a building program.

  • Andy

    to tie it into the “story” however, the side that owns the building is getting interviewed, not the dissenters. I don’t know what to think about that. I guess I see the remnant members as the ones that are defending their property from assault by outsiders, but when 90% are voting to leave, that 90 should get a quote in the paper.(I’m sure the Savannah Morning News did that, but they’re not quite the NYTimes circulation are they)

    If your organization loses 90% of membership in a vote, perhaps it deserves to die, but the building is not yours to take(but surely it will go both ways countrywide in court) Godspeed to you all in court.

  • John Granger

    This is also an issue in the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, which quite suddenly (in terms of church history) reversed fields to acknowledge the Moscow Patriarchate as Mother Church rather than apostate vessel of the state that was guilty both of ecumenism and sergianism. As parishes founded by Russians in resistance to these herseies struggle with the about-face of their bishops, the courts are sorting out the parish property cases one by one. There are plenty of historic ironies in this, as the Church Abroad won and lost several property cases when parishes left the more liberal Orthodox Church in America because of their ecumenism (usually over the decision to force departure from the traditional Church calendar). The Church Abroad by embracing the MP is now in communion with the OCA, their litigation rivals of only a few years ago, and parishes having left the OCA are now having to once again face the possibility of “moving” because of a departure of the bishops from a historic witness.

  • Chris Bolinger

    As usual, Rodgers kicks butt. Goodman, however, just wastes our time.

  • Steven in Falls Church

    Andy–Actually, Christ Church Savannah owns its property, not the national church or the local diocese. If you go down to the courthouse and pull the deed copy, you will see only one name on it: the trustees for Christ Church. The national church and the Diocese of Georgia are claiming ownership of the property through a one-sided trust that was passed at a 1979 national convention and which post-dated the founding of Christ Church by 1/4 of a millennium. Indeed, Christ Church pre-dates the founding of the Diocese and the national church itself by many years. The trust issue will be litigated in the many cases being filed, and it is likely that many courts (either at the trial or appellate level) will eventually find it unenforceable, especially in cases where a parish owns its own property and pre-dates the foundation of the church claiming the property. I cannot predict with accuracy what will happen in these cases; what I can say with certainty is that the charge that these break-away congregations are stealing property and are greedy is unfair.

  • Stephen A.

    The same bias was evident here in New Hampshire, in which an Episcopal Parish split, with the vast majority walking, and the media focused on the remnant and how upset they were. About a year later, the remnant church folded, but the thriving new church has never been the focus of a news story, to my knowledge.

    Incidentally, a gay publication in Miami is reporting (as am I) that the state’s gay Episcopal bishop, V. Gene Robinson, plans to marry his male partner in June. Read more here:

    The money quote? “I always wanted to be a June bride.” No, I’m not joking or making that one up.

  • Bill


    “don’t come back.(or try and buy the empty shell back at the upcoming auction for the property)”

    Suppose the courts go against the 90% of the parish and the building id auctioned off. Why on earth should the congregation not be allowed to buy the building back. That would be illegal and totally illogical. Perhaps you’d rather see the building turned into a night club as some ECUSA churches have been!

  • Stephen A.

    To add more gasoline to the fire, Archbishop Williams has apparently conducted a “secret Mass” in London for gay clergy:

  • Ned Carmody-South Carolina

    Pray for the Anglican faithful that they keep up the good fight. God bless those who have left the episcopal cult.

  • Brian Walden

    “don’t come back.(or try and buy the empty shell back at the upcoming auction for the property)”

    Bill, I think Andy meant to say leave the church and either purchase your own building or buy the church when it goes up for auction. I don’t think he meant the for the “don’t” to apply to the part in parenthesis.

  • Raider51

    Actually, I agree with Andy — I’m surprised when the Episcopal Church decided to abandon the Christian Faith, it didn’t just walk away from all those properties. I guess the golden handcuffs are pretty tight.

    What I’ve been interested in with these stories is how the Main Stream Media is completely neglecting the very interesting story of how the so-called “conservative” side in the old Confederacy is allying with “Africa.” Meanwhile, the “liberal” side (including a white-haired, pink-skinned leader named Lee in Richmond) is making sneering remarks about the “African churches.”

    As a native Californian, I find the continuing racial prejudice in the Episcopalian leadership breathtaking.

  • Stephen A.

    I’ve also noticed the irony that conservatives are allying with Africa, and the TEC leadership at times seems to be crossing a line with their comments about the Africans.

    As for the church buildings, their seeming attachment to worldly things is also an interesting thing to watch. But in stone cold reality, I guess they feel it takes a building to fulfil a church’s mission.

    I guess the golden handcuffs are pretty tight.

    What’s the “safe word” in case things get too rough?

    Given the uses some liberal congregations are making of these churches – hosting gay parties, etc. – the handcuff analogy is very apropos.

  • John

    you have a vivid imagination, Stephen.

  • Robert

    The various situations and points of view related to ownership of Episcopal church property are interesting. The diocese and national church claims on church property, while real and I assume legally enforcable, have other dimensions outside the purely legal.

    I offer the example of my own local Episcopal church which has been existance for over 25 years and was purchased with a mortgage loan for the land and buildings financed by a church foundation at a below market intrest rate. The deed to the church property is held by the diocese but all the payments for the property were made by the local church.

    If our church should choose to leave the Episcopal Church, (which does not seem likely by the way) the legal property ownership would remain with the diocese and the local church members would have to find a new location.

    This is even though the local church paid fully for the property. Also interesting is the point that almost none of the original church members are still at the church, and would have no say in the matter whatsoever even though they all helped pay for the church.

  • Jay

    Over at VirtueOnline, a retired Episcopal bishop (and canon law expert) offers a detailed discussion of the legal issues involved in church property.

  • Martha

    Well, now.

    Here was I under the impression that The Episopal Church was, unlike the monolithic and repressive Church of Rome, just chock-full of democracy and lay representation, and that the bishops were not tyrants.

    Suppose the mad, crazy laity decide they want to bolt, despite what the bishop may do to rein them in? Will he or she be removed and replaced? Have a lawsuit brought against him or her?

    Sounds just a teensy-weensy bit like, oh, the national leadership leaning on the local congregations. Almost like they think of themselves as some sort of Curia?

    But that can’t be, since we’ve been repeatedly told that neither The Episcopal Church nor the Anglican Communion has a Pope or Curia and so these kind of centralised decisions simply cannot be made and enforced.

    Whatever happens, it sounds like the only winners are going to be the lawyers.

  • Martha

    Andy, it is my understanding that the Presiding Bishop nixed the idea of the departing congregation being permitted to buy the church property, even though one diocese had worked out an amicable split.

    In testimony before a Virginia court last week, US Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori stated she had directed the Diocese of Virginia to sue the clergy and lay leaders of 11 congregations after they had quit the Episcopal Church for the Churches of Nigerian and Uganda.

    In video taped testimony presented to the Fairfax County Circuit Court, Bishop Schori said she ordered Virginia Bishop Peter Lee to break a verbal agreement allowing the 11 parishes to withdraw from the diocese so as to prevent “incursions by foreign bishops.”

    Bishop Schori’s testimony during the four hour deposition, recorded on Oct 30 and presented in evidence on Nov 15, did little to engender the sympathy of the court, as observers noted she carefully parsed her words, and at one point was directed by the court to answer a question.

    Testimony in the week long trial, revealed that shortly after her installation as Presiding Bishop in November, Bishop Schori met with Bishop Lee, telling him she “could not support negotiations for sale if the congregations intended to set up as other parts of the Anglican Communion.”

    In December the diocese broke off negotiations with the congregations, and filed suit in January to recover the assets of the congregation. However, Virginia law permits congregations to depart from their denominations with their property, if the title deeds are not encumbered and if the majority of the congregations votes to leave.

    “Virginia has a long history of deferring to local control of church property and the statute at issue says that the majority of the church is entitled to its property when a group of congregations divide from the denomination,” a spokesman for the Anglican District of Virginia, the breakway group, said.

    “The Episcopal Church admitted in its complaint that it does not hold title to any of these eleven churches and that the churches’ own trustees hold title for the benefit of the congregations,” said ADV vice-chairman Jim Oakes.

    In her testimony, Bishop Schori said she was miffed by the incursions of the Church of Nigeria into the US, saying its American arm, CANA, violated the “ancient principle of the church that two bishops do not have jurisdiction in the same area.”

    Had the 11 parishes been offered to sale to Methodist or Baptist groups, Bishop Schori said she would not have objected, but “the Episcopal Church, for matters of its own integrity, cannot encourage other parts of the Anglican Communion to set up shop within its jurisdiction,” she said in her deposition.

    At the Primates meeting in Dar es Salaam in February, Bishop Schori endorsed the communiqué which called upon the US Church to cease litigation with traditionalist breakaway groups, and seek reconciliation.

    However, in her deposition, Bishop Schori said the Primates’ communiqué was not binding upon the American Church.

    On Nov 16, ADV rested its case. The Diocese will present its case to the court this week with the trial expected to conclude before the week’s end.”

    So if the Baptists, the Moonies or the Raelians wanted to buy the former parish church, no problem! If the Daughters of Artemis wanted to turn it into a Temple of the Moon Goddess and hold sky-clad ceremonies there, right you are! But for another Anglican church to do so? Over her dead body!

    I believe she has described this tactic as “waging reconciliation.” Some of those dissident congregations are going to be reconciled out of their socks!

  • Dana

    If “Nearly nine out of 10 members of the church voted to leave,” just what does the Episcopal Diocese expect to do with the property if it manages to retain title and control? The Episcopal Church has been losing members for many years now, and it’s reasonable to assume that the vast majority of people who wished to attend Episcopal services in that parish were already doing so. If the Diocese retains the parish property, won’t it have what is essentially an empty building?

    The bishop ought to realize that he cannot compel people to come to his church if they disagree with what appears to be the primary focus of the Episcopal Church these days. He just might be creating a vacant building and a lot of new Catholics.

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