UK: Church of England warned of legal action if it tries to 'steal' churches from Rome parishes
A leading bishop has warned the Church of England it could become embroiled in costly legal action if it tries to "steal" churches from traditionalists ready to defect over the the introduction of women bishops.
By Martin Beckford, Religious Affairs Correspondent
The Rt Rev John Broadhurst, Bishop of Fulham, claims most of the church's assets once belonged to the Roman Catholic Church.
He says it would be "legalised theft" if the Church of England tried to keep buildings used by Anglo-Catholics who may defect to Rome after its governing body voted to bring in women bishops without special concessions for traditionalists.
Anglo-Catholics have already said they hope entire parishes will be accepted into the Roman Catholic Church while keeping their existing churches, a move which would be strongly resisted by the Church of England and would inevitably lead to legal disputes.
Discussions are already under way between at least one Church of England bishop and the Vatican about entire parishes converting to the Roman Catholic Church.
In America court battles are under way in at least eight states over the ownership of church property and titles, involving conservative parishes that have defected from their liberal national church but which want to keep their buildings and diocese names.
The council of Forward in Faith, the traditionalist group chaired by Bishop Broadhurst which represents more than 8,000 Anglo-Catholics within the Church of England, has also voted vowed to press ahead with finding a way to create new dioceses for those who do not want to be led by a woman bishop.
It said there was no "cast-iron guarantee" that this would mean members would stay within the Church.
Bishop Broadhurst's warning of legal action comes as a key member of the group chosen to bring about the historic step of introducing women to the episcopate resigned in protest, throwing the process into fresh turmoil.
He said: "Most of the assets of the Church of England in terms of buildings, schools and other property either come from the pre-Reformation Catholic Church or as a direct result of the Tractarian and Catholic revival.
"This property is very much our heritage and inheritance and to suggest that many wish to steal it from us in a very unpleasant form of legalised theft would not be an understatement."
The bishop believes the established status of the Church of England robs Anglo-Catholics of their "life and heritage" but says: "I do wonder if this would stand in the European Court."
Bishop Broadhurst added: "It is quite apparent that we are being subjected to what I would call institutional bullying of a kind that, if it were found in the commercial world, would be the subject of serious litigation.
"The atmosphere and the approach of some of those opposed to us reveals that not only are they not very good Christians - they are also not nice human beings."
Meanwhile Fr Jonathan Baker, the leading Anglo-Catholic on the nine-strong team responsible for drawing up the legislation to ordain women as bishops, has quit his position and warned "real problems" had been created by the divisive General Synod vote that left one bishop in tears.
He said he would be unable to take part in the creation of proposals that only include a national code of practice for parishes that do not want to be led by a woman, after plans for a new "men only" dioceses or "super bishops" to cater for traditionalists were rejected.
The departure of Fr Baker leaves the Women Bishops Legislative Drafting Group without an important voice and may further reduce the legitimacy of its proposals in the eyes of Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals.
His resignation may convince even more traditionalists that there is no chance of the new legislation meeting their demands, and hence no place for them in the Church of England.
It may also reduce the likelihood of the proposals being voted through with the required two-thirds majority in each of the Synod's three houses when they are considered at a meeting in London next February.
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