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Diocese of Pittsburgh reaches "comprehensive agreement" with ACNA Diocese of Pittsburgh over church property ownership

Diocese of Pittsburgh reaches "comprehensive agreement" with ACNA Diocese of Pittsburgh over church property ownership

By David W. Virtue, DD
March 1, 2018

The Episcopal Church's Diocese of Pittsburgh and the ACNA's Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh have reached a "comprehensive agreement" over the future of nine parishes which seceded from the diocese in October 2008, and in a joint statement say they have "resolved disputed questions over the ownership and use of the church property that have lingered since the congregations voted to leave The Episcopal Church."

The nine parishes and the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh are members of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), an independent Anglican body recognized by the vast majority of the Global South and GAFCON, though not by Archbishop Justin Welby and the Anglican Communion. Three parishes did not agree to the settlement.

In effect the agreement does not declare a winner in each side's claims to control the properties -- the parishes as title holders or the diocese as legal beneficiary.

The agreement has been in negotiation for over two years between 13 parishes acting as a group and the TEC Diocese of Pittsburgh. Last spring, they agreed on the two mediators and the talks began to ramp up. They also had a confidentiality agreement that was strictly adhered to. The agreement had to be ratified by the vestries of the 13 parishes. It went to the vestries in mid-November. Only ten of the 13 agreed to the proposal. Three parishes: Trinity Church Beaver, Christ Church Brownsville and Grace Church Mt. Washington did not agree to settle. All three are small parishes, although Brownsville has a large endowment -- upwards of $1 million. What happens to them is anybody's guess?

A source told VOL that It appears the sticky wicket for the three was the annual payment of funds in perpetuity (see Executive Summary page 3 para 2 here: http://www.episcopalpgh.org/docs/PropAgreement_PublicAnnouncement_180228.pdf) which as part of the Agreement calls for the Parishes to pay an annual fee to the Episcopal Diocese. For the first 20 years of the Agreement, the annual fee will be 3.25% of the operating revenues of the Parish for the prior calendar year. For each year thereafter, the annual fee will be 1.75% of the operating revenues of the Parish for the prior calendar year.

Other aspects of the agreement include:

The nine parishes can keep using its properties.
Parishes are not permitted to do any sales or other transactions involving the properties without the consent of the Episcopal diocese, which in turn pledges "to not withhold its consent unreasonably."
Parishes can continue their routine use of endowment funds, with the Episcopal diocese retaining a say in any new use of principal, such as for capital projects.
In exchange for the payments, the parish keep their titles and TEC will not enter into any further litigation, although the parishes agree TEC still has a trust interest in their property.

The only parishes with a lot of annual income are St. Stephens Sewickley and Ascension Pittsburgh and perhaps Christ Church Fox Chapel. "In some sense this is a monetary shakedown by TEC as they still maintain a trust interest in the properties and they still do not recognize the entity of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh per se as having insisted on individual settlements by the parishes. The hope is after 20 years TEC will give up," the source told VOL.

No figures were released by either side as to how many tens of thousands of dollars were spent on legal fees.

Commenting on the agreement, the Episcopal Church's Bishop of Pittsburgh, Dorsey McConnell, said: "Even though the issues resolved here originated through division and were often the cause of great pain, we know that as Christians we are called to be ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation, first among ourselves, and then with the larger world.

"The Episcopal Diocese and the Parishes have come to recognize that our mutual desire to live according to the Gospel and to share with others the Good News of Jesus Christ far outweighs any differences we have with each other, and this agreement frees us to carry out that mission as we believe God is calling us to do."

The Anglican Church of North America's Bishop of Pittsburgh, James Hobby, said: "I feel that the settlement is quite remarkable, given the litigious culture in which we live. Clearly, hard work and difficult conversations were part of the negotiations. But, biblical principles and a shared commitment to follow Christ provided a healthy context for pursuing the discussions with mutual respect and understanding. A commitment to our fundamental mission was greater than our differences. While differences remain between the parties, I pray that Jesus' prayer for unity in Him and His truth will one day find expression throughout the Church."

Under the agreement, the parties agree that the nine parishes own the legal title to the "real and personal property" of the churches, while the Episcopal Diocese has "trust beneficiary rights" in the "historic" real and personal property of the churches -- the assets prior to the breakaway.

The nine parishes will "continue to use the church buildings and other real property that is part of the Historic Property for their Christian worship and ministry," the agreement says, while the Episcopal Diocese "may make use of the . . . historic church buildings to meet pastoral needs consistent with the shared history, Christian heritage, values and beliefs of the Parties, or to engage in joint ministries with the Parish."

The agreement has obtained the necessary approvals by the Episcopal Diocese and each of the nine churches. Before it can come into effect, the parties will seek the approval of the Attorney General and the Allegheny County Court.

"By resolving these issues of ownership and use of church property, the Agreement allows the Parishes and the Episcopal Diocese to continue in their ministry without supporting or engaging in lawsuits involving the other. Both the Episcopal Diocese and the Parishes followed lessons contained in the Gospels and all of Scripture in reaching this Agreement."

The nine parishes which are the subject of the agreement are: St Peter's Anglican Church, Butler; St Mary's Church, Charleroi; Christ Church, Fox Chapel; Christ's Church, Greensburg; St Alban's Anglican Church, Murrysville; Church of the Ascension, Oakland; St Stephen's Church, Sewickley; St Peter's Church, Uniontown; and Trinity Church, Washington.

In total the Episcopal diocese has 36 active congregations in southwestern Pennsylvania. The Anglican diocese, which covers a broader area of Pennsylvania and oversees several out-of-state parishes, has close to 60 congregations with some forming after the split.


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