CONNECTICUT, NEW YORK, and CALIFORNIA—A scorched earth policy. That’s how Anglicans who have left The Episcopal Church (TEC) and its endorsement of unbiblical beliefs and actions often describe TEC’s response. From depressed Binghamton, N.Y., to affluent Newport Beach, Calif., TEC leaders have fought dozens of court battles to force congregations leaving the denomination to forfeit the buildings they, their parents, and their grandparents paid for.
Here’s one example: Church of the Good Shepherd stood for nearly 130 years on a main road through Binghamton, a former manufacturing hub that now has a high unemployment rate. Members were long concerned about theological drift, and the consecration of a homosexual bishop in 2003 by TEC’s General Convention was the last straw.
Binghamton rector Matt Kennedy began a conversation with the bishop of central New York, telling him the church would likely leave TEC to seek oversight of an Anglican bishop in another province. Kennedy says the initial meetings were productive, and the congregation offered to buy its building from the diocese for $150,000—but TEC hierarchs rejected the offer. After the congregation disaffiliated from TEC in 2007, the diocese filed suit for the building.
Kennedy says the congregation considered walking away, but would have had no resources to continue. Plus, the rector said: “We thought it would be good for outsiders to see that those who claim to be about tolerance and inclusivity really aren’t about those things. It’s really more a kind of tyranny.” In 2009, though, a judge ruled against the congregation, which had to leave immediately.
Kennedy remembers “one of our more stoic men standing in front of a plaque bearing his father’s name, tracing the inscription with his finger.” The plaque would have to stay. In 2010 the diocese sold the church to local Muslims for $50,000, according to Virtue Online, three times less than what the departing Christians had offered. The Muslims used a crane to remove the cross. A sign on the building now reads, “Islamic Awareness Center.”
Anglicans mourned the loss, but Roman Catholics offered them an abandoned church building at a reduced price the Anglicans could afford. Church of the Good Shepherd Anglican now meets on a property that includes a sanctuary four times larger than the old one, with 10 times the parking capacity. The rectory for Kennedy’s family (now with six children) is larger than the one he had to give up. A local day school rents a school building on the property that covers the church’s mortgage.
On a recent Thursday evening, local community members sat around long tables in the fellowship hall for a weekly soup kitchen. The extra space has allowed the church to accommodate more people. Some visitors to the soup kitchen have become members of the church. And the larger campus has allowed the church to expand outreach to a nearby low-income neighborhood.
But despite the church’s material blessings, Kennedy says the primary lesson has been about letting go: “The experience of standing firm for the gospel and suffering loss has taught us that Christianity is not about Jesus giving you a new car and a better job. … It’s about giving everything for Jesus.”
THE SCORCHED EARTH POLICY is also evident 3,000 miles away at St. James Anglican Church, which for more than half a century owned property in Newport Beach: The 300-member congregation now meets in a fluorescent-lit room with exposed pipes and concrete walls. It’s a humble setting for an affluent congregation accustomed to soft lighting and stained glass, but a fitting one this month for celebrating the birth of a Savior in a barnyard stable—and that’s one of the providential results of the scorched earth policy.
St. James lost its building even though the church had a written agreement with its diocese that seemed to ensure the congregation’s ownership of the building—but when it was time to part, the diocese and TEC sued the congregation, and a judge cited an Episcopal Church canon declaring that all church property belongs to the diocese and the denomination.
Judges across the country have used the same rationale to expel dozens of congregations from their buildings over the last decade, as TEC and local dioceses wage a relentless campaign against departing churches. But many Anglicans, while suffering significant material loss, are finding substantial spiritual gain. Caroline Crocker, the wife of St. James’ rector, compares the dynamic to the account of Joseph in the Old Testament: “What one meant for evil, God meant for good.”
Other churches around the country share similar stories. Some don’t get other buildings. Some don’t even survive. Yet, many Anglicans say they’ve learned more about humility and ministry by losing material possessions. Many say they’ve also learned about unity in the broader church, with other local congregations offering help. Meanwhile, TEC membership continues to fall. At 1.9 million in 2010, it’s about half of what it was in 1960, and 16 percent lower than in 2002.
But while Phil Ashey of the American Anglican Council (AAC), an advocacy group for parishes and dioceses leaving TEC, says it’s encouraging to see God blessing many of the new Anglican parishes, he also says the conflicts are a kind of “first fruits” of what Christians outside TEC could face in coming decades (see sidebar below). Ashey says the AAC now advises many churches to walk away from property and focus on their mission.
“For far too long we’ve been more in love with our buildings than lost people,” he says. “And God in His wonderful, severe mercy is giving us a new opportunity to have our hearts changed and broken for lost people … and to let the buildings take care of themselves.”
SINCE TEC CONSECRATED GENE ROBINSON as its first openly homosexual bishop a decade ago, hundreds of churches have fled the denomination. TEC is one of 38 provinces in the 70-million member worldwide Anglican Communion. The departing parishes emphasize that TEC’s approval of homosexuality is one outgrowth of deeper doctrinal problems: TEC leadership has questioned the authority of Scripture for decades.
Many departing parishes sought oversight from African bishops in other Anglican provinces, and in 2009 the American churches formed the Anglican Church in North America. The association reports more than 100,000 members in 1,000 parishes.
Episcopal dioceses and TEC often have sued departing parishes for their property using the Dennis Canon—a 1979 TEC law that declared local parishes hold their property in trust for the diocese and denomination. Many parishes have argued civil trust laws don’t allow an entity to declare that another group’s property belongs to them. Courts in some states have agreed with that analysis, but most have ordered parishes to relinquish their property.
The campaign has peaked under Katharine Jefferts Schori, who became in 2006 the first female presiding bishop within the Anglican Communion. Before her consecration, some departing churches offered payments to their dioceses for the properties they had built and maintained, but Jefferts Schori intervened and said TEC would not sell to congregations that intended to remain Anglican. TEC has sold buildings to Baptists, Methodists, Jews, and—in at least two cases—Muslims.
Eleven churches in northern Virginia were among the victims of the new policy. They were negotiating buyouts with Virginia bishop Peter Lee, who said he was ready to accept the offers—but with Jefferts Schori’s hard line cratering negotiations, the diocese of Virginia sued the parishes and won the properties (see “A great divorce,” June 16, 2012). The AAC reports TEC leadership has initiated at least 78 lawsuits against parishes and departing dioceses. (Five dioceses have left TEC.) Some lawsuits include multiple parishes.
A TEC spokeswoman said Jefferts Schori wasn’t available for an interview for this story. Allan Haley, an attorney representing two of the departing dioceses, estimates TEC has spent nearly $26 million on litigation: “It’s a policy of wearing people down by outspending them.” Many of the lawsuits include individual rectors and vestry members by name. Some seek punitive damages. Most suits demand church property and everything inside, as well as money in parish bank accounts.
In some cases, TEC has asked banks to freeze the funds of departing dioceses during litigation, a dynamic that makes hiring attorneys difficult. Keith Ackerman of the Diocese of Quincy (Ill.), one of the dioceses that left TEC, says one frozen account in his diocese includes funds for widows and retired priests. In one case, Ackerman says the diocese had used the funds to purchase healthcare for the widow of a rector who died from Parkinson’s disease: “We can’t do that anymore.”
Still, Jefferts Schori insists allowing conservative parishes to leave without a battle wouldn’t be “faithful,” and has said she wouldn’t set up “competitors that want to either destroy or replace the Episcopal Church.” In 2008, she told Religion News Service, “Bad behavior must be confronted.”
BACK AT ST. JAMES ANGLICAN, many members long worried they’d have to confront the bad doctrine of TEC.
By the early 1990s, Bishop John Shelby Spong was publicly deriding the virgin birth, the resurrection of Christ, and the reliability of the Bible. Others followed, including Bishop John Chane in his 2002 Easter sermon declaring Jesus’ resurrection “at best conjectural.” Jefferts Schori has also questioned the resurrection, and adamantly denies Christ as the only way to God.
When members of St. James—founded in 1941—considered building a new sanctuary in 1991, they worried about what would happen to their property if they withdrew from TEC. St. James’ leaders obtained a letter from the attorney for the bishop of the Diocese of Los Angeles stating church leaders could purchase and own property “not held in trust for the Diocese of Los Angeles. …”
The congregation built a new sanctuary, but by 2004 voted to leave TEC. The diocese of Los Angeles filed suit against St. James, and named the rector and vestry members in the litigation. TEC joined the lawsuit. A California judge didn’t consider the waiver letter in his rulings, and awarded the $20 million property to the diocese in July. In August, the court gave the St. James Anglican congregation 45 days to leave, and the church moved to a Christian school in September. The diocese is still seeking additional funds from the church. A spokesman for the diocese of Los Angeles said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation.
Longtime members of the church remember family weddings, baptisms, and funerals at the Newport Beach property. One church member had donated a stained glass window in memory of his son who died of leukemia. Other members collected the ashes of family members interred on the property. But if the separation has been grim, it’s also been fruitful: A carpenter in the congregation made wooden kneelers for worship. Volunteers have mastered setting up and breaking down for worship. Others are looking for outreach opportunities.
During the Sunday morning service at St. James, rector Richard Crocker told the group: “We are resurrection people. We are people of hope.” After the service, Marian Michaels, 82, and a member since 1965, said the loss was difficult, but “in a way it’s kind of exciting because we’re waiting to see what the Lord has in store for us.”
BACK EAST, the 80 members of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Bristol, Conn., didn’t know what God had in store for them. The congregation—formerly Trinity Episcopal—was founded in 1747, and built its last building in 1949. Don Helmandollar, 74, became Trinity’s rector in 1999 when he entered the ministry at nearly 60 years old.
By 2003, Helmandollar was meeting with other conservative Episcopal priests to discuss TEC’s alarming trajectory. “Our main thing has never been about homosexuality,” he says. “It’s about whether the Bible is the Word of God and Jesus is the only way.”
Eventually, six parishes (known as the Connecticut 6) asked a judge to declare their properties belonged to them and not the diocese. A judge dismissed the suit, and Helmandollar says national TEC leaders summoned him and other priests to TEC’s New York headquarters to ask them to back down.
They didn’t. A handful of the churches, including Trinity, left TEC in 2007. The Diocese of Connecticut defrocked Helmandollar and demanded the church leave the property.
Trinity settled with the diocese in 2008, surrendering everything except some of their funds. On May 25, 2008, Trinity members held their final service in the building and then sang hymns in the churchyard. “Then we turned out the light, locked the door, and left,” says Helmandollar. “And we have never regretted it.”
On a recent afternoon, Helmandollar and two longtime church members walked through the yard of their former building. A large “For Sale” sign sits in front, and dried leaves and vines partially cover the “Trinity” marker. The building has been empty for the last 5½ years, as members of Holy Trinity meet in a nearby school gym.
Fred Clark, a member since 1974, ticks through a list of experiences his family marked in the building: Clark and his wife married here, worshiped and prayed, baptized their babies, rejoiced at their children’s weddings, and grieved at their daughter’s funeral. “Those are hugely important milestones,” he says. “And yet they pale in comparison with standing up for the truth of the gospel. … When you put it in those terms, it’s really simple.”
Since their move, Helmandollar says the church lost a few families, but gained others. The church has worshiped under a basketball goal at a school gym, and prayed for guidance. A few months ago, an unexpected answer arrived. A local Baptist pastor called Helmandollar on a Sunday afternoon to tell him his congregation was growing old and had decided to disband. Then he told Helmandollar: “We’d like to give you our building.”
On a recent Wednesday night, Trinity members flowed into the 150-year-old church building in the nearby town of Plainville. Green wreaths with red ribbons adorned black lampposts outside the town hall across the street, as members of Holy Trinity stood inside the white building with high ceilings. “All we can do is praise God,” says Helmandollar. “We certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it.”
Trinity members are making some renovations before holding services in the church early next year, but an engineer told them the building is a structural gem. Downstairs, nearly two dozen members packed around long tables in the fellowship hall, sipping coffee and listening to a sermon by John Piper for a Wednesday night Bible study. The sermon’s theme: “God did it.”
Senior warden Marie Bartz reminded the group: “We didn’t get the building because we’re good people. … We got it because we have something to do.” Bartz says she’s glad they moved on when they did. “We spent a lot of time being distracted from the things we really should have been doing,” she says. “Once you leave, there’s freedom, there’s peace—there’s life after.”
ANGLICANS IN NEARBY Watertown, Conn., have found “life after” as well. The 60 members of New Hope Anglican—formerly Christ Church Episcopal—left TEC in 2007. After a few months of preparing for a legal battle, longtime church member Paul LePine says the congregation decided to walk away: “To fight for the property wasn’t worth the spiritual damage it was causing, and there was no end in sight.”
The congregation’s former stately building in a picturesque neighborhood now belongs to a prestigious private high school. (The property is worth an estimated $7 million.) A sign outside says a group meets for worship on Sunday mornings. At a coffee shop nearby, LePine says worrying about lawsuits and TEC’s direction became toxic for the congregation: “So we laid down our arms.” The vestry met with the bishop, resigned their positions, and started a new church with scant resources.
LePine’s daughter, Sara, now 16, still remembers leaving the only church building she’d ever known: “Leaving that was scary, but it’s how we learned to be the body of Christ outside church walls. … It was painful, but it was painful with a purpose.”
Since then, the congregation has worshiped at a hotel, a middle school, and a senior center. On a brisk Connecticut morning, LePine gave a tour of the church’s current rental space in a former tool factory. The modest room inside includes simple altar furniture a member built, and rows of wooden chairs, folding chairs, and a camping chair.
A smaller room serves as Sunday school space and a place to collect items for local ministry. Since the congregation left its building, LePine says it has been more focused on outreach to the community, holding events at the local senior center and for youth in a low-income neighborhood.
LePine says the congregation hopes to reach more people in the blue-collar area of town, and says the move has pushed it to become more missional.“We’re an orthodox church in an unorthodox environment,” he says. “There’s nothing glamorous about this. But it’s good to be free to be about the mission.”
Anglicans aren’t the only Christians fleeing their denomination. Hundreds of churches have left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the last few years, and the exodus accelerated in 2011 when the denomination approved ordination for homosexuals.
At least 110 congregations left the PCUSA in 2012, and the denomination lost 102,000 members last year. The group’s membership (now 1.85 million) is half its total from 1965.
Regional presbyteries decide property issues in the PCUSA, and some have allowed departing churches to keep their buildings. Other congregations have paid a steep price: In 2008, Kirk of the Hills in Oklahoma paid its presbytery $1.75 million for its own property.
Though many parishes leaving The Episcopal Church (TEC) have lost their buildings, some departing dioceses have fared better. The now-Anglican diocese of Quincy (in Illinois) won its case earlier this year, though Episcopal leaders have filed a new suit in another county.
In 2012, the diocese of South Carolina became the fifth diocese to leave TEC. (In an address to remaining congregations in South Carolina, TEC Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori equated leaders who fight TEC with murderers: “It’s not terribly far from the state of mind evidenced in school shootings. …”)
Mark Lawrence—bishop of the diocese of South Carolina—says the diocese remained in TEC as long as possible, but couldn’t ignore serious departures from biblical orthodoxy: “The gospel is at stake. It’s either revelation or speculation.” After the denomination approved liturgy for homosexual weddings in 2012, and attempted to remove Lawrence as bishop, most churches in the diocese voted to leave.
So far, judges have ruled in favor of the South Carolina diocese, though the litigation is only beginning. But if departing dioceses eventually do prevail, others might consider a move.
Meanwhile, other departing Southern churches have moved on without their property. In Savannah, Ga., congregants of Christ Church Anglican lost the building they had occupied for nearly 170 years.
The church argued the congregation had held title to its property since 1733, and shouldn’t have to relinquish its building. A judge disagreed, and the congregation surrendered the building to the diocese of Georgia in 2011.
The nearby Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) offered the Anglicans use of their space rent-free. (The Anglicans meet before IPC’s morning service.) After the final service in their former building in December of 2011, more than 400 Christ Church Anglican congregants processed down Bull Street to the open doors of IPC. More than 500 members of the Presbyterian congregation were waiting for them.
As they entered the sanctuary, IPC pastor Terry Johnson declared: “Our faith is your faith and our buildings are your buildings.” The congregations sang together: “The Church’s One Foundation Is Jesus Christ Her Lord.”
—J.D. in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.