Wednesday, June 27, 2007

When Is a Church Building Like a National Park?

The property issues in the Episcopal Church continue to affect the news. On June 26, an appeals court ruled in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles concerning the properties of four parishes that left the Episcopal Church. The ruling overturns a lower-court decision that proved favorable to the parishes. And just a few days earlier, the Rev. Jan Nunley of the Episcopal News Service (ENS) provided her take on the property issues.

In that blog entry, Nunley argues that even while parishioners pay money for their church buildings, the property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church as a whole. She compares the situation with taxpayers whose dollars go to funding national parks; they cannot take any part of the property no matter how much money they've contributed.

The problem is that taxpayers may well pay for parks that they never use, but parishioners pay for church buildings in which they worship. More: they not only pay for, but participate in, activities devoted to serving God in these buildings. They see their family members and friends grow up in, baptized in, and confirmed in these churches. They dedicate their money, time, and effort into refurbishing meeting spaces for youth and other groups. National parks, as wonderful as they are, normally are not connected with major life events -- or, more importantly, peoples' relationships with God -- as churches are.

Even more: the church becomes home to a variety of groups/ministries throughout the week. What is to happen to all of the ministries when the whole parish departs if all of the parishioners must leave the building? These are real, heartfelt issues, and it's shortsighted to boil the issue down to a matter of payment.

There certainly are substantial arguments to be made on both sides of the aisle about property. There are also some serious issues to be dealt with individually and, if a parish or a majority of a parish leaves the Episcopal Church, perhaps collectively. How does your view on property relate to, and affect, your ecclesiology -- your beliefs concerning the church? If you believe that the church's property belongs to the congregation who paid for it, are you in favor of a more congregational mode of church government as opposed to a heirarchical one? Where do bishops and apostolic succession fit into the picture? Or, when a church espouses heresy, does that itself mean that congregations should fight for church buildings as a way of stopping the spread of heresy? Many orthodox Anglicans today answer that last question resoundingly in the affirmative.

There are questions for the denomination as well. Yes, past parishioners may have contributed to the parish expecting that it would have been available to future generations of Episcopalians, and that truly is a serious concern. But it's also fair to speculate that many of them would have opposed the Episcopal Church's drift from orthodox faith and practice, possibly to the point of agreeing with those who want to keep the buildings as they leave. Given that scenario, how valid is the "trust" argument?

My colleague Alan Wisdom argues that there are also other, less obvious, questions that people should perhaps consider. What impact should the reality of the communion of saints have concerning our view of to whom the property belongs? Can any piece of property be said to belong to only a parish or even a denomination? Does it instead belong to the communion of saints -- all Christians living today, as well as those now with God in heaven and those yet to be born? This line of thinking, while perhaps novel and too impractical for many, has some serious implications for many issues.

But church buildings are not like national parks. The investment made goes far deeper than money, and hits the hearts of people, some of whom have spent a large portion of their life at a given parish.

And the Episcopal Church, in its determination to retain its property, has shut down any attempts at a negotiated settlement (in the case of the 11 departing Virginia parishes, at least). The denomination has, in Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's own words, resorted to "the big guns," supposedly because "the pastoral solution has failed." But what "pastoral solution" was even halfway attempted? In Virginia, the diocese cut off negotiations and scuttled the Protocol for Departing Congregations that had been in development by a diocesan special committee for nearly a year's time.

It also bears remembering that former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said that diocesen bishops are free to pursue what the Living Church magazine described as "an amicable settlement with a congregation that wants to leave the Episcopal Church and retain its building." But ever since Bishop Jefferts Schori assumed her office last November, the national church has taken a legal role in attempting to keep property.

There are serious issues here for the Episcopal Church: by not being open to negotiation with parishes, by demanding that orthodox parishioners leave property without negotiations, by calling them "dissidents" and pitting them rhetorically against "faithful" Episcopalians who stay, by declaring to the press that their leavetaking essentially is inconsequential ... what type of message is the church sending to the world and to those who are leaving? How is a lawsuit consistent with blessing people who leave, a task that Bishop Jefferts Schori has advocated? How is a lawsuit in any way contributing to the health of the Anglican Communion when the primates requested in their February communique that all lawsuits should cease?

For all of its self-professed "more gracious" view of Christianity (according to Bishop Jefferts Schori, at least), the Episcopal Church is now seen by most orthodox Anglicans as hostile toward orthodox faith and practice. Moreover, the denomination is seen to be uncaring and all too laissez-faire concerning orthodox parishioners and, perhaps even more so, parishioners who depart -- uncaring and laissez-faire, that is, except when it comes to retaining the property. One Virginia parishioner said to me a few months back (to roughly paraphrase from memory), "Whatever I may have felt beforehand, why in the world would I now want to stay in a denomination that is suing my parish -- that thinks so little of us as to sue us? You don't do that to your own worst enemy, and this is supposed to be a Christian church!" Where is grace?

It does not have to be this way. I know of a Presbyterian church that left the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) several years ago for a more conservative denomination. The presbytery reportedly told the congregation, in essence, "We don't want you to leave, but if you must, we'll sell you the property for a price." The original building had long been paid off and the congregation had paid for a building expansion not too many years earlier. Paying for the building in essence a second time (though at a greatly reduced rate) may well have seemed unfair to some of the parishioners. Nevertheless, an agreement that recognized the claim on the property by both the congregation and the denomination was reached peaceably and amicably. There's no reason why such a model couldn't work in the Episcopal Church.

But in Virginia recently, when asked about how to respond to congregations leaving, Bishop Jefferts Schori mentioned blessing them and telling them, "we'll leave the light on." That phrase (with the addition of "for you" at the end) may have been a humorous folksy sentiment for Motel 6, but in today's tense Episcopal Church climate it conveys flippancy (at best) instead of warmth. The Episcopal Church apparently cares more for its property than its (orthodox) people, and more for the perceived "trust" in those buildings than (orthodox) teaching and theology. Those perceptions undoubtedly will only encourage more orthodox Anglicans to leave the Episcopal Church. An analogy comparing church buildings with national parks sadly (if unintentionally) trivializes the heart issues involved with the painful choice of leaving a denomination.


the spotsyltuckian said...

I am currently worshipping in an abandoned church after the Anglicans seized our parish property here in Virginia. First, one thing we've found is that the spirit of our congregation wasn't connected to a specific property - it goes where we do. Second, though, this constant charge about how the Diocese cut off negotiations is bunk. The negotiations were on-going until parishes, like mine, took their two-prong vote in the midst of it: (1) to leave TEC; and (2) to retain the property. At that point, a willing Diocese realized negotiations were over and took the only remaining actions available. Case in point, All Saints, in Dale City, did successfully negotiate with a Diocese on very gracious terms; they are renting back their 'Anglican' space for five years at a cost of $1 a year until they build a new church on property they had already purchased outside of TEC-parish funds. I find Anglican language so nuanced, whether it deals with property, or by the prospective, so far, unconvincing would-be Bishop of South Carolina. I'm a bureaucrat by trade; I only wish I could write memo's with holes big enough to drive trucks through like Ralph has here, and as Mark Lawrence, has done in his bid to become a Bishop.

the spotsyltuckian said...

I wanted to go more fully in responding to Ralph as I was in a hurry before.

As I said, my TEC congregation is currently worshipping in a former TEC property abandoned by its congregation. In our part of the county, before 2003, there were three TEC parishes. Two were conservative, the other, mine, was a place where hot-button issues did not impact on fellowship; it was essentially neither progressive or orthodox.

After 2003, as I said, one parish did successfully negotiate with the Diocese, and has leased its church for a period of 5 years at nominal cost until they can build a new church elsewhere (plus agreeing to a fair market settlement on the property overall with the Diocese). The second parish abandoned its property. The third parish, mine, held a vote to leave TEC, claimed the property, and filed documents with the court to that effect. They didn't 'sue' but did they did claim the property in a civil filing with the County court. After that action, the Diocese took the matter to court - what other choice do you suggest was open to them at that point? We, who voted against leaving TEC, moved into the abandoned parish. There wasn't any time where we were not the original parish - we just shifted a few miles to the north.

Ralph asks what's to happen to all of the ministries when the whole parish departs if all the parishioners must leave the building? I can tell Ralph that we who remain members of TEC have cranked up ministires in our new location, indeed, we even chair the local ecumencial council on outreach and local shelter funding and meals provision. I teach Adult Ed; my wife teaches Sunday school. We have music, acolytes - we really haven't skipped a beat.

Ralph asks if property questions relate to ecclesiastical ones. As I said, the Holy Spirit led us at the old site, and still leads us at the new one, within the greater corporate body of TEC, the Diocese, and the Communion.

If Ralph is truly interested in reconciliation, perhaps it would be a good thing if he stops calling us heretics, as he does, in this piece.

Gosh, I find Bishop Katharine to be a person absolutely inclined toward grace and reconciliation, if at all possible, hardly one to ever unilaterally cut anyone off. A prime example: when she was asked how she felt when African Bishops would not take communion with her, she replied, "I'd still take communion with them." When asked if she was angry, she replied: No, just sad." This isn't a portrait of a villian, as Ralph portrays.

TEC is not hostile to orthodox faith. How many times do we have to say we want to worship in a Church that is broad enough to accomodate both progressive and orthodox viewpoints. The problem, it seems to me, is that the orthodox are unwilling to accomodate the progressive one (or heretical one, as Ralph chooses to name it).

We, in TEC, don't care more for property than our brethren. But here's how this Episcoplian sees it: the Anglicans instigated a schism. Their plans all along were to be recognized as the sole Anglican body in the U.S. and to seize the property, therefore, by right. That didn't happen. At this point, courts in Florida, South Carolina, Pittsburgh and California have ruled the property remains within TEC. I've seen Anglicans now claiming to be victims and low on funds to hire lawyers. I have to admit: I'm just not that sympathetic.

I'm surprised that Ralph, and his fellow IRD members have not opened their wallets to assist the parishes they've encouraged to split. Perhpas they are conceding the property as a lost cause?

I'll leave it at this: from the time we landed in our new temporary parish, until the suits are settled, and the old property is regained, its been a time of many blessings. We've been on the receiving end of much generosity and good will from churches all over the country. Our ministries are thriving. We've seen the numbers attending services just about double with newcomers, with more arriving every Sunday. Sometimes, a 'time-out' turns out to be a blessing, and this one, is feeling more and more like that all the time. There's some deprivation in our new digs, but there's a grace and beauty shining through - the love of our Lord sustains us.

If/when it comes time to reconcile, I'm willing, but I'd still insist on the justice of full inclusion, and a promise from those who've returned, that never again will we as a body tolerate intolerance. Under those conditions, after all the court proceedings are done, this progressive is, and always has, been willing to resume worship alongside the orthodox in love and fellowship.

Ralph Webb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ralph Webb said...


After a lengthy time away from blogging, I'm only now getting to respond to your concerns and criticisms.

You're right, of course, "that the spirit of [a] congregation [isn't] connected to a specific property." And, yes, ministries can pick up in different locations. I am glad to hear of your ministries and how they are continuing.

But let's put ourselves in the position of a rector (I am not one, and I assume the same is true for you)who can no longer stay in TEC, and with a parish where the vast majority of the congregation voted to leave. Some ministries are easier to move to different locations than others. Let's say that you have a daycare center or a preschool with dozens of children. How in the world can you leave a building where you have room for such ministries, and where you don't have to raise additional money to keep them afloat?

And what if you're a mother or father of teenagers and you were one of many parishioners who just in the last two years contributed financially to expanded youth facilities? Why would you suddenly feel that you can -- or should -- just up and leave a property?

These are the type of heart issues with which I'm concerned. And yes, the concerns of those like yourself who see their parishes leave are just as important.

That's why I advocate the diocese and the national church coming to the table with departing Anglicans -- so that all of these issues can be addressed, and so that some solutions can, by God's grace, be reached.

See my next-to-last paragraph in this post for a better way in which things could be handled.

God bless,
Ralph Webb