The property issue in TEC continues to make news headlines. On Friday, August 10, a preliminary hearing on the Virginia parishes' case resulted in both the diocese and the national church agreeing to dismiss the vestry members and clergy members as defendants in the suit.
In itself, that is wonderful news -- cause for thankfulness to both TEC and the Diocese of Virginia for this action. At the same time, it is extremely disappointing that it evidently took the possibility of a court ruling that would have taken the individuals off of the lawsuit to get this response. The court apparently had to suggest to the diocese and the national church that they should strike a deal with the district.
So if the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia can find it in some deep recesses of their beings to take even that step, why can't they just end the lawsuits against parishes, wherever they may be? There really is no reason why the diocese, the national church, and the departing Anglicans cannot sit together at the same table and come to some agreement that addresses all three groups' concerns. Certainly such an outcome would require sacrifice on the part of each group. No group would get exactly what it wanted. But isn't a peaceful settlement one way to make the "hope of [one type of] reconciliation," which Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says motivates her, a reality? And wouldn't that be worth any sacrifices?
Because what we're dealing with here is not property, essentially, but people -- people and their ministries, their acts of service to God. The clergy and vestry listed on the lawsuit had dedicated their time, energy, money, and service to Christ. The parishioners leaving the denomination have invested the same. And, yes, parishioners who want to be buried in a graveyard on Episcopal Church property, and all those distressed by a parish's departure from the denomination, matter greatly.
I addressed these issues a while back. Sometimes, being out of the office for a lengthy period of time inevitably means that you may not find time to respond to posts that beg for a followup. The Episcopal News Service's (ENS') Rev. Jan Nunley responded to my piece "When Is a Church Building Like a National Park?", which was my personal reaction to some thoughts that she expressed over at EpiScope. Unfortunately, Rev. Nunley's rejoinder essentially missed the point that I outlined above. In fact, she claimed that the use of the church buildings by parishioners, as well as the money that they give, is "irrelevant ... in the civil courts."
And that points to part of the problem here. For as much as the Episcopal Church may want to keep things at an impartial legal level, it cannot escape the fact that its legal actions affect people at a heart level. Because whether you're staying within the Episcopal Church or leaving it, church property is a place of ministry where lives are impacted deeply.
A side note: When people start going several times a week to a (presumably at least relatively local) national park; send their kids there a few times a week to youth activities; hold weekly meetings there involving dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people; get married there; go to weddings regularly there; have their family members' funerals there -- then I'll give some credit to the Rev. Nunley's comparison of a church with a national park. But I, for one, have never heard of such regular use of a park by a large group of people -- much less regular religious use, despite the fact that some Americans find more solace in a national park than a church building. (Rev. Nunley is right on that last point.)
The diocese and the national church do offer some words of balm to those who they consider to be "faithful," "loyal," or (to cite Rev. Nunley) "[t]rue" Episcopalians. They sometimes speak of perserving their heritage for future generations of Episcopalians. Those are important concerns. But where is concern for those who are departing? Where are the concerns for existing ministries, including preschools and youth ministries, that will end when the majority (or, perhaps in some cases, all members) of a parish leaves?
It's also worth noting that some parishioners who voted "no" to leaving TEC stand strongly against the direction in which the denomination is heading. People in this group voted "no" because they disagreed on the timing of the departures, the group with which the parishes affiliated, and/or any number of other issues. Diocesan and national church claims to the contrary, they are no more "loyal" to the Episcopal Church than those who voted "yes."
Is there any way in which the needs and concerns of both those leaving the Episcopal Church and those staying within the denomination could be met? If the diocese and the denomination don't come to the table, we'll never know.
I'm no lawyer or property expert, so I'm not speaking from knowledge of all the legal ins and outs of this situation. Additionally, I'm only giving my own personal views on this issue here; I am not speaking for anyone else. But clearly a decision that takes into account all of the needs of parishioners -- both those leaving and those staying within the Episcopal Church -- requires Solomonic wisdom. And it can best be accomplished, in each case where it is occurring, by the diocese, the national church, and the departing Anglicans sitting down together and working out some solution that works to the benefit of all three groups. Such an approach would be glorifying to God.
A side note about the Rev. Nunley's depiction of the IRD as an organization dedicated to "erod[ing]" the separation of church and state: There are many problems with this characterization, not the least of which is that no one here at the IRD holds that goal. Progressive beliefs to the contrary, we're not fond of theocracies. (We do believe in "the naked public square," the open discussion of religious beliefs in the marketplace of ideas. That's a principle and a freedom that applies to progressives as much as conservatives.) But since it would take a lengthy essay (or even a book!) to address the extensive paranoia about the IRD evidenced among many progressives, I'll leave the responses to those already made by different IRD staffers.