Bad news travels fast. Though tucked away at a clerical retreat in Nigeria, it took only a flash of electrons for Anglican Bishop Martyn Minns to receive news of the California Supreme Court's property dispute ruling against St. James parish in the city of Newport Beach, Calif. The court on Monday ruled that the congregation, whose facility overlooks luxury yachts afloat on Lido Channel, must surrender that property to the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.
St. James is one of about 100 U.S. Episcopal congregations that in recent years have split with the national church hierarchy, first over the ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, a openly practicing homosexual, then over the larger, evolving issue of homosexuality and the church.
Leaders in the Los Angeles diocese quickly suggested that Monday's ruling might have a "chilling" effect on other congregations considering leaving the national church. But Minns disagrees.
Minns is missionary bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a group of more than 70 congregations and 150 clergy in 21 states. Founded in 2005, CANA was established as a diocese-like home for breakaway U.S. Anglican churches. The group includes 11 Virginia churches that last month prevailed in the largest U.S. property dispute in Episcopal Church history.
"I think [the California decision] might have a negative impact on some congregations, but most are leaving over principle, not property," said Minns, speaking by phone from Nigeria. "Many congregations have chosen not even to contest [ownership of church] property. We're doing this because we believe in something," namely the inerrancy of Scripture and its status as the final, objective authority in all matters, including sexual morality.
If standing up for that belief means giving up property, Minns added, most congregations are prepared to do so.
Founded in the 1940s, St. James holds title to its property and had over the years enlarged it, adding parcels purchased with funds donated by church members. But the high court ruled the parish gave up legal ownership to its property when it agreed to join the Greater Episcopal Church of the United States (GECUS).
"The local church agreed and intended to be part of a larger entity and to be bound by the rules and governing documents of that greater entity," wrote California Supreme Court Justice Ming W. Chin.
Those rules say GECUS owns the property of all member churches.
Ironically, yesterday's ruling would not have been constitutional in a case involving secular claimants. It was St. James's very status as a church that enabled the court to effectively transfer legally documented ownership from one entity to another. In a separate, concurring opinion, Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote, "This result is constitutional, but only because the dispute involves religious bodies and then only because [legal doctrine,] permissible under the 1st Amendment, allows a state to give unbridled deference to the superior religious body or general church."
The ruling would affect two other California churches involved in property disputes with the Los Angeles diocese. The Los Angeles Times reported that the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, the bishop of Los Angeles, was "overjoyed" at the ruling and looked "forward to possible reconciliation with these congregations."
Minns said that's unlikely: "Reconciliation involves agreement about truth. Bruno is out on the edge and has ignored the requests of the archbishop of Canterbury and the rest of the Anglican Communion" concerning the conscience rights of local congregations. "The leadership is changing fundamental beliefs," Minns added. "We want the freedom not to go there."