Cover Story

Tidings of discomfort and joy

"Tidings of discomfort and joy" Continued...

Issue: "Tidings of discomfort and joy," Dec. 28, 2013

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.”

CHANGING HANDS: New building for Church of the Good Shepherd purchased at a discount from the Roman Catholics.
Photo by Jamie Dean
CHANGING HANDS: New building for Church of the Good Shepherd purchased at a discount from the Roman Catholics.
ST. JAMES ANGLICAN CHURCH: Worship transcends location.
Anacleto Rapping/Genesis
ST. JAMES ANGLICAN CHURCH: Worship transcends location.
ST. JAMES ANGLICAN CHURCH: Sign for new location.
Anacleto Rapping/Genesis
ST. JAMES ANGLICAN CHURCH: Sign for new location.
ST. JAMES ANGLICAN CHURCH: Church building that was lost.
Handout
ST. JAMES ANGLICAN CHURCH: Church building that was lost.
LARGER STRUGGLE: Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Associated Press/Photo by Rex C. Curry
LARGER STRUGGLE: Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.
LARGER STRUGGLE: Trinity Episcopal building for sale.
Photo by Jamie Dean
LARGER STRUGGLE: Trinity Episcopal building for sale.
LARGER STRUGGLE: New building for Holy Trinity Anglican Church.
Photo by Jamie Dean
LARGER STRUGGLE: New building for Holy Trinity Anglican Church.
LARGER STRUGGLE: Fred Clark.
Photo by Jamie Dean
LARGER STRUGGLE: Fred Clark.
SANCTIFIED SPACES: New worship space for New Hope Anglican.
Photo by Jamie Dean
SANCTIFIED SPACES: New worship space for New Hope Anglican.
SANCTIFIED SPACES: The building that was lost.
Photo by Jamie Dean
SANCTIFIED SPACES: The building that was lost.

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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. …”

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