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Built to last?

Religion | Property disputes arise as conservatives prepare to leave the Episcopal Church

Issue: "Living a legend," Aug. 19, 2006

The rumblings of Episcopalians at war are getting louder, and they are being heard in the distant reaches of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) is the 2.3-million-member U.S. constituent of the fast-growing Communion, which claims nearly 80 million members in 38 provinces or regions, the majority of them in the predominantly conservative "global south."

TEC's waywardness in doctrine over the years, culminating in recent approval of gay sex and now rejection of Anglican calls to repentance, has landed it in deep trouble. Its conservatives are heading for the exits, and many in the Communion are poised to eject it-and designate a conservative alliance as the new official Anglican presence in North America.

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As TEC breaks apart over doctrine, much of the struggle is focused on who owns parish property; TEC maintains that under a 1979 church law, it is held in trust for the denomination regardless of who paid for it.

Recently retired bishop William Swing of San Francisco is in charge of coordinating TEC legal efforts to bar departing parishes from taking their property with them. He and three other liberal California bishops have reached long and low to buttress their position. They accused wheelchair-bound conservative bishop John-David Schofield of Fresno of "abandoning the communion of this church," a first-ever for a TEC bishop.

A dubious claim (Schofield is widely known for his loyalty to traditional Anglican teaching), it was a move that sought to bypass due-process provisions of church law. His case would move quickly to the liberal-dominated House of Bishops, where, if found guilty, he could be summarily kicked out of the denomination. With him out of the way, TEC officials could press his traditionalist Diocese of San Joaquin to remove from its constitution certain language reserving power to the diocese.

The removal would strengthen TEC's contention in secular courts handling church property lawsuits that it is a hierarchical denomination. As such, it argues, it therefore is entitled to hold disputed property in trust; departing congregations can't keep it.

The issue is important because TEC stands to lose up to 1,000 or more congregations, including many of TEC's largest in attendance. Some conservative parishes heading for the exits are negotiating a buyout with bishops to keep their property, some are just walking away and leaving the keys-and a mortgage-behind, but still others are insisting that since they bought and maintained the property, it's theirs.

Lately, California courts, backed by U.S. Supreme Court guidance in 1979, have been judging property cases according to corporate law-and allowing congregations to keep their property. Denominational leaders fear the trend will spread to many more states.

Indeed, Swing warned Schofield in a letter later leaked to the press that if the San Joaquin constitution stands as amended over the past two years, it "puts all Episcopal dioceses [in California] in jeopardy" and "it will create chaos for all of us for all time."

Schofield rejects the "abandonment" accusations and says he will fight them. The church law Swing used against him applies to someone who joined another faith or who has openly renounced "the doctrine, discipline, or worship" of the church. Like Swing, some bishops have been applying it to dissident conservative clergy.

Bishop Andrew Smith of Connecticut used it to defrock a priest and take over his parish. Conservatives have now filed charges against Smith, claiming his actions violated church law. Unlike the Presbyterians and Methodists, however, TEC has no judicial system that would hold church leaders accountable to its laws.

Schofield will not face the House of Bishops anytime soon. TEC presiding bishop Frank Griswold this month canceled its autumn meeting. Griswold, who leaves office in November, has been meeting with Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and other leaders to try to find a way for TEC to remain in the Communion.

With TEC status at stake, the last thing Griswold needs is a showcase trial where a group of intolerant liberal bishops succeeds in booting a soft-spoken, Bible-quoting, handicapped conservative bishop out of the church.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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