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Who owns the steeple?

"Who owns the steeple?" Continued...

Issue: "Cellblock campaign," Dec. 23, 2006

TEC's property task force has assembled a package of briefs, court filings, and other research materials, even lists of expert witnesses, to assist loyal dioceses with lawsuits against dissident parishes that want to leave with their property.

David Booth Beers, TEC's top in-house lawyer, said he doesn't foresee many court cases arising from the church split. At a recent briefing on legal issues for a liberal-led group, he said only 10 property cases have been filed since 2000, and TEC "has prevailed" in all except one in Los Angeles that will be appealed. He also predicted unfavorable "preliminary" rulings in San Diego, South Carolina, and Central New York would be overturned.

TEC's gatekeepers also are now resorting to hardball tactics and even preemptive strikes, especially with the "problem" dioceses. Although Beers said he doesn't expect any dioceses to leave, the task force wants to be ready. The 8,000-member Diocese of San Joaquin, led by Bishop John-David Schofield, this month voted overwhelmingly to begin the process of withdrawal, to take effect after a second vote sometime next year. The diocese's corporate documents were amended to omit all links to TEC.

Earlier, several fellow bishops in California filed the equivalent of sedition charges against Schofield, who is disabled and ailing, claiming he had abandoned the communion; a review committee of other bishops dismissed them. Jefferts Schori fired off a letter warning that TEC had the authority to remove him and his leaders, and to take control of the diocese. Schofield served notice that if she moved against him, he and his diocese would resist, and the second vote to withdraw would occur quickly.

Stern letters similar to Jefferts Schori's have started showing up in mailboxes of parishes that want to leave. Under pressure from TEC headquarters, Bishop Peter Lee of Virginia, the largest of TEC's 110 dioceses (90,000 members), abruptly cut off settlement negotiations with Truro Church and The Falls Church. In almost a year's work, the churches and a diocesan committee had agreed upon all but the buyout figures. Lee said any withdrawal arrangement was subject to approval at TEC's highest levels. He warned of takeover if the churches attempted to leave without such approval.

One of the states whose corporate laws should encourage church property owners is Virginia-though court decisions in church disputes have been inconsistent. Both sides would be wary of letting a judge decide their futures. It all may come down to how much money is on the table.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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