Billions in assets at stake as the Episcopal Church faces a possible breakup
By RICHARD N. OSTLING
AP Religion Writer
The 7,364 congregations of the Episcopal Church receive $2.14 billion in offerings a year: Their buildings and liquid assets are worth untold billions.
Add it up and suddenly much more is at stake than spiritual matters if the church splits over the Episcopal General Convention’s approval of an openly gay bishop. Both conservatives and liberals are beginning to ponder the prospect of drawn-out, messy financial squabbles.
"This could be the biggest church real estate sale in history," says the Rev. Charles Nalls of the Washington-based Canon Law Institute.
Nalls, who recently quit the denomination because he felt it was getting too liberal, says about 100 aggrieved congregations have asked his institute for advice about possible withdrawal and property rights.
In addition, at least 52 congregations in 20 states, 320 priests and 16 bishops have so far endorsed a protest petition at www.communionparishes.org
— a new Web site based in Colorado Springs, Colo. The site also asks Episcopalians to consider withholding contributions from the national denomination and liberal dioceses.
The protesters style themselves as "continuing" Episcopalians, people who want to preserve the denomination’s tradition and the beliefs of a vast majority of the world’s Anglicans.
When it comes to potential property fights, one important factor is that those who opposed the Rev. V. Gene Robinson’s election as New Hampshire bishop were a minority among Episcopal bishops and convention delegates.
That will be a crucial point for Episcopal liberals, because secular courts avoid taking sides in doctrinal squabbles and do not second-guess churches’ internal decision-making.
However, another line of church property cases relies on neutral principles of contract law, which could give conservatives leverage to keep property in some situations, depending on parish documents, state laws and the statutes of local Episcopal dioceses.
In the Episcopal Church’s first notable schism, the 1873 creation of the evangelical Reformed Episcopal Church, defectors generally were allowed to keep their buildings.
But in the 1970s, Episcopal leaders played hardball against opponents of women priests and revisions in the Book of Common Prayer. Few of those who quit, eventually forming 40 small denominations, held their properties.
During those conflicts, the 1979 Episcopal convention added a church law specifying that all assets of a congregation are "held in trust for this church and the diocese thereof." That’s now a major weapon for church headquarters, though Pittsburgh attorney Robert G. Devlin thinks it’s debatable whether the law binds congregations that existed before 1979.
Devlin, an Episcopalian, is the attorney for the Anglican Mission in America, established by overseas Anglican archbishops in 2000 to gather Episcopal dissenters. Only one of its 55 congregations has been able to leave the Episcopal Church with its property.
Washington attorney David Booth Beers, chancellor (legal adviser) to the Episcopal Church’s presiding bishop, had no comment on property law. He also declined to recommend other experts, perhaps reflecting headquarters’ strategy or its edginess about property arguments.
Over the years, when bishops have allowed Episcopalians to leave with their buildings, it was only "when the cost of fighting was greater than the value of the property," says Michael F. Rehill, former chancellor of the Newark (N.J.) Diocese.
Rehill thinks a split now over Robinson makes no sense, because the Episcopal Church set its policy seven years ago when a church court ruled there was no doctrinal barrier to openly gay clergy and the denomination let that decision stand. Rehill was the defense attorney for a bishop in that landmark case.
But what if a whole conservative diocese decided to leave the Episcopal Church? Rehill says a diocese simply cannot do that, and litigation would halt any attempt.
But Nalls argues that the law on the relationship between the diocese and national church is unclear. "This is new territory," he says. "It’s going to be a lawyers’ field day."
Some think a major split in the denomination would actually decrease the chances of extended court battles.
David Kalvelage, executive editor of The Living Church, an independent Episcopal weekly that opposes gay bishops, says both sides would want to avoid spending time and money on legal fights.
Nalls agrees that unless the two sides "talk turkey and broker a divorce," lawyers will reap millions of dollars and there will be little left worth fighting over.
And Devlin thinks numerous property fights would also make the Episcopal Church look bad. "Are we trying to advance the kingdom of God, or trying to just preserve our bricks and mortar?" he asks.
On the Net:
Episcopal Church: http://www.episcopalchurch.org