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.