Covering all sides

ChristChurchFollowing the departures of various parishes, the Episcopal Church is working hard to keep the parish properties from the groups that have joined other Anglican bodies. There has been lots of Washington-area coverage since many of the parishes are from Northern Virginia. But The New York Times' Brenda Goodman reports on a story out of Savannah, Ga. Here is how it began:

For 274 years, there has been one Christ Church here, and it is a congregation with a proud history.

Started with a land grant from King George of England and led by famous names like John Wesley and George Whitfield, Christ Church has been the spiritual home of some of this city's most notable residents, including Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts.

So it was unsettling, to say the least, for some longtime members when Christ Church, which is believed to be the first church established in Georgia, voted recently to part ways with the Episcopal diocese it had been a part of for more than 200 years to join an Anglican diocese in Uganda.

"I just feel a tremendous loyalty to this church, and I am confused about this situation," said Frances R. Maclean, 85, a member of Christ Church for 55 years who saw her children baptized and then married in its century=old chapel. "What is this business about Uganda?"

Nearly nine out of 10 members of the church voted to leave, so I find it interesting that the reporter uses an anecdote from the minority. The story is not about what happens to the losing side in votes to split from national church bodies (a most worthy angle) but, rather, about how the rifts have flooded courts with civil lawsuits over church property. The only other congregant quoted in the piece is likewise part of the minority who voted to remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church:

Speaking to her congregation on Oct. 14, just before congregants voted on the decision to disaffiliate with the Episcopal Church, Janet Stone, 63, a member of Christ Church since 1975, pleaded for unity.

"I beg you to stop this fight and seek reconciliation," Ms. Stone said. "It would be a powerful witness."

Moments later, 87 percent of the congregation voted to support the split.

Maybe next time the reporter can find one person from the 87-percent faction to discuss how they feel about being sued by the Georgia Diocese. Otherwise the entire human interest aspect of the story seems more than a bit one-sided.

Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a remarkably thorough story on the history and unknown future of church property disputes. Leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh have begun the process of leaving, as well a number of Presbyterian Church (USA) congregations that have left for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. It could be decided on case by case:

The original deed for a church founded in the 1780s might say nothing about entrusting its property to a denomination. But if it purchased additional property later, that parcel might have been explicitly held in trust for a larger church body.

"Trust" is the key word. Some denominations have a constitutional clause saying that all church property is held in trust for the denomination. But in others, such as the Baptists or the United Church of Christ, there are no trust clauses. Over the past two years, for instance, about 15 congregations broke from the Penn-West Conference of the United Church of Christ. But there were no fights over who got the buildings.

Those who defend trust clauses say they honor and preserve the gifts that people made over generations for the work of their religious tradition.

"Courts have jurisdiction over dirt and land and property. But a church, a presbytery, a diocese, has to see the parishes as mission sites. They're about sharing the gospel, not about real estate," said the Rev. Mark Tammen, counsel to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Rodgers gives both sides, explaining that departing parishioners are the ones who feel that the national church bodies have abandoned all generations by compromising creedal Christian doctrine.

Some of the Presbyterian breakaway parishes have been able to buy their property from the national church body, Rodgers notes. She also explains the two primary ways civil courts evaluate property disputes -- enforcing whatever the governing church body says, or on the basis of deeds and other legal documents. Laws and precedent on the issue are not very stable at the moment, the piece suggests. In one case where the Episcopal Church won a decision over a breakaway parish, the building now sits empty while the congregation worships nearby.

Rodgers' piece is chock full of interesting details and analysis. Here she shows what the Diocese of Pittsburgh might face in the days to come:

In a speech to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, the denomination's chancellor, David Beers, outlined steps that could be taken if a diocese attempts to leave. In addition to removing and replacing the bishop, lawsuits could be filed against the departing bishop, other leaders of the secession and a sampling of congregations that try to keep their property.

"We are quite frankly stunned to learn of the actions of priests and lay leaders who undertake to leave the Episcopal Church and yet to maintain control and ownership of church buildings and other assets that belong to the [Episcopal] Church and have been held by them only in trust," wrote attorneys Josephine Hicks and John Vanderstar, who serve on the denomination's Executive Council, in response to a critical letter from several retired bishops Thursday.

Rodgers makes the case that these disputes could be decided in many different ways. Hopefully reporters will keep on the stories as they progress.

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