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THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH: To Sue or Not to Sue, That is the Question

THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH: To Sue or Not to Sue, That is the Question

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

Increasingly it is becoming clear that The Episcopal Church is easily winning all the legal battles, some 60 or more, to retain properties they neither built nor paid for, but, because of the Dennis Canon, believe they have the right to own.

For the most part it has been a slam dunk.

A parish announces it is leaving. They retain legal counsel to keep the property. The bishop says, no you can't. Lawsuits are filed by one side or the other and the legal struggle begins. Millions of dollars later, after going through several court levels, the judge usually finds in favor of the diocese and the national church. The parishioners and priest, always the majority, leave and start over down the road. To date, one whole diocese - Pittsburgh - has lost in the struggle to keep its properties. They will appeal.

The liberal/revisionist bishop makes all the usual noises about how nice it would be if everybody would come back home and carry on Mrs. Jefferts Schori's mission to save the world for God by endorsing Millennium Development Goals even though most of the geriatric parishioners will be in advanced care facilities being treated for Dementia or Alzheimer's Disease within a decade.

With the break up come hurt feelings and broken relationships. In time things return to a sort of normalcy and life goes on. Relationships are rarely restored because people discover that having two very different gospels does not make for good bedfellows, despite the fact that they all say the same creed together on Sunday morning. Most of those who want to retain the property for the diocese do so not out of evangelistic zeal, but because the graveyard beckons and they want to be buried in a Columbarium they bought and paid for. Discipleship has nothing to do with it.

The Episcopal Church has been universally successful in it its ability to litigate and win. The draconian figure of David Booth Beers hangs like a Damoclean Sword over those who would flee with their properties. When the sword descends, the pain is swift and decisive. To date the Episcopal Church has gleefully wrung its hands as it has won back parish after parish, even though the legal cost has run into the millions of dollars, both locally and nationally.

A case in point is the Diocese of Colorado. Bishop Rob O'Neill fesses up that he spent $2.9 million on legal fees to take back the $17 million dollar parish of Grace and St. Stephens, denuding the diocese's trust fund, reducing it to a mere $750,000. The parish spent a cool $700,000 and lost the case. The diocese is close to bankrupt.

O'Neill's lawyers moaned to the local newspaper that the colossal legal fees could have been avoided had the Anglican parish heeded legal advice early on. The Rev. Don Armstrong, rector of Grace & St. Stephens, was told then that the Anglican parish would not prevail in the property case, said a diocesan lawyer, because similar cases brought before the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that a parish loses its property when it leaves a denomination.

Even though the "law was crystal clear," Armstrong and his vestry chose to retain other attorneys and fight for the Grace property, said the lawyers.

The potentially erroneous assumption here, repeated by Lesbos Integrity leader Susan Russell, is that the leaders of breakaway congregations want to save money. It is possible, they argue, that what people like Bishop Martyn Minns and others are trying to do is to inflict as much damage on the Episcopal Church as possible, and count on their deep-pocketed donors to make that possible.

Even if there is some truth to this, why should they give up without a fight? This is America. People don't roll over because the likes of bishops Jon Bruno, Charles Bennison and Jefferts Schori say so. It took seven years for All Saints, Pawleys Island, to finally win in the Diocese of South Carolina. Ask them if it was worth it. Furthermore, there is every possibility that the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) will win their properties and keep them because they were built before the invention of The Episcopal Church. "Hell no, we won't go" has a long tradition in this country.

Standing by and letting a handful of revisionists walk all over godly priests and their parishes is not the American way. While Scripture places no importance on property whatsoever, it should be remembered that those churches were built stone upon stone, stained glass window on stained glass window by godly men and women who, if they knew what was going on would roll over in their graves to learn that a divorced father of two had shacked up with a man and was selling his sodomite "gospel" to a deconstructed church.

Despite the losses, some orthodox bishops have shown an amazing graciousness when equally orthodox parishes have decided to flee. Both the bishop of Central Florida, John W. Howe, and Dallas Bishop James Stanton have let parishes go (with fair market value) without a lawyer intervening, demonstrating that it is possible to be obedient to Scripture which abhors such actions. (Prov. 25: 8 and 1 Corinthians 6:1-7. But is the Bible explicitly against legal action? When is legal action appropriate for a Christian? To be clear, the Bible does not say a Christian can never go to court. In fact, Paul appealed more than once to the legal system, exercising his right to defend himself under Roman law (Acts 16:37–40; 18:12–17; 22:15–29; 25:10–22). In Romans 13, Paul taught that God had established legal authorities for the purpose of upholding justice, punishing wrongdoers, and protecting the innocent. Consequently, legal action may be appropriate in certain criminal matters, cases of injury and damage covered by insurance, as well as trustee issues and other specified instances.

There might be more than a smidgen of truth that the conservatives are taking financial revenge, but asking Armstrong and his congregation to walk away from a $17 million building just to satisfy an ultra liberal bishop without some sort of a fight would be poor stewardship. Spending $700,000 to retain $17 million seems like small change. That the diocese spent nearly $3 million virtually bankrupting themselves is their problem, not Armstrong's. They, too, had the option of settling.

Armstrong was allegedly told by diocesan attorney's (something he himself flatly denies) that the Anglican parish would not prevail in the property case, because similar cases brought before the Colorado Supreme Court have ruled that a parish loses its property when it leaves a denomination. Absent accession language in their articles of incorporation, 94% of the orthodox parish voted to engage and fund the legal fight as stewards of a building dedicated to holy purposes.

Armstrong, in a note to VOL, said that these legal fees could have been avoided. "O'Neill was given many opportunities to work this all out in a Christian manner, but insisted on a battle using high end attorneys, with himself spending four times as much as we did...and literally bankrupting the diocese...I can't imagine his use of trust funds meant for ministry isn't a legal problem itself." Armstrong may be right.

This still begs the question, why could not O'Neill, a revisionist who has brokered gay and lesbian priests into his diocese, show the same magnanimity as Bishops Howe and Stanton in letting the property go for fair market value?

Is there some deep-seated, dare one say pathological hatred, flowing out of O'Neill that can't bear the thought of having a faithful godly, gospel-preaching pastor among his flock of pansexuals and liberals and that his only recourse is to stamp out the remaining few orthodox priests?

Charles Bennison succeeded in snuffing out the "seven sisters" Anglo-Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Bishop John Howard of the Diocese of Florida wiped 38 priests off the roles, keeping all their properties. Now he is being forced to sell some of the parishes off because no one attends them anymore.

No mercy, it seems, is written on the foreheads of revisionist bishops.

At the end of the day, The Episcopal Church may well prevail with the properties, but they will never win the hearts of those who have left. They have gone for good despite Jefferts Schori's plea that "we'll keep the doors open." She might just as well close them. They will never return.

The Episcopal Church is on a trajectory downwards, while the new vibrant ACNA province adds new parishes weekly through its numerous Anglican jurisdictions.

Whether the Episcopal High Command likes it or not, the old order is dying and a new order is being born and nothing they can do will stop it.


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