Saturday, December 13, 2008

Church Property Disputes & Common Sense

There's been a temptest raging today over on HoB/D over the amount of money (some $2 million, apparently) that the Episcopal Church has spent so far in legal fees trying to recover property held by congregations (and now dioceses) that have elected to sever their ties with "this church." The original poster opined that it is sinful to spend that kind of money taking other Christians to court. "Why not rather be defrauded?" as St Paul put it to the Corinthians. That poster subsequently got piled on by those putting forth the view that it's a simple matter of thievery (that is, on the part of "leaving" congregations); they're taking property that was intended to manifest the life and work of the Episcopal Church in perpetuity, and they must be resisted by every available means. I finally weighed in as follows:

I find myself dismayed by many aspects of this thread, though I am hard pressed to find anything to say that I have not already said many times, on this listserv and elsewhere. Anyone who thinks that there is one simple moral principle that can be applied like a blanket to cover all the property disputes that arise from the current unpleasantness is just not looking at reality. No two of these situations are exactly alike. The history, the present human dynamics, the financial paper trail, and a host of other factors, all contribute to the moral calculus in each individual case. 

Take, for example, a 150-year old physical plant that was paid for by long-departed donors. Yes, they clearly intended to advance the ministry of the Episcopal Church in their location--the founding documents probably say as much explicitly--so there is *prima facie* a strong presumption in favor of their stated wishes being honored. But it is more than plausible to counter that they would not recognize the Episcopal Church today as the same one they were intending to perpetuate, and not particularly because of any of the currently controverted issues. The mere fact that a set of chasubles fills the sacristy drawers may be enough to cause many of them to retrospectively rethink their largesse if such were possible. One cannot assume that the great-grandparents of today's senior parishioners would have one opinion or the other about "leaving" or "staying" in TEC as it is today. 

So, the repeated mantra of "fiduciary responsibility" wears a little thin. One must turn to other factors to make a prudent and sensible decision. If a majority of the present active congregation is in favor of leaving, but a significant minority is in favor of staying, the latter group should certainly not be turned out into the street--or the VFW hall. IMHO, too little imagination and charity have been exhibited in such situations; the winner-take-all mentality has been destructive. (The Colorado Springs situation seems a case-in-point here.) 

On the other hand, when a congregation is a relatively recent plant and the facilities have been paid for by parishioners who are more or less the present congregation, and the diocese has made no investment beyond the brand name, and there is an overwhelming vote in favor of leaving, it strikes me as beyond inane to take those folks to court. Justice is just a matter of common sense for those with open eyes. 

Then there are the "bite my nose to spite my face" cases where any victory on the part of TEC is pyrrhic because they're left with a church and a steeple but when they open the doors there are no people. Just heating and lawn care bills--and in many cases, a mortgage. Meanwhile, the people that could be worshiping and serving there guessed it...celebrating the Eucharist in the VFW hall on Sunday mornings. That's just idiotic. My former parish is in one of the four departed dioceses. Between my departure and my successor's arrival they eradicated the word "Episcopal" anywhere it was found and replaced it with "Anglican." Sooner or later, Mr Beers will get around to suing them. If he wins, he'll have a very handsome set of buildings dating back to the late 19th century and which are a collective black hole for maintenance dollars. I hope he enjoys watching them fall apart, because my guess is that even the residents of the columbarium will have relocated by then. 

This is a complicated mess. It requires a complicated cleanup. Nostrums about thievery are not helpful.


Undergroundpewster said...

I gave up on that list/serve a while back. Thank you for sticking with it and speaking up with the voice of truth.

plsdeacon said...

It seems that common sense is not all that common.

You can read my response in full here:

TLF+ said...

But Father, you are speaking here of prophets who walk the labyrinth and do centering prayer and stuff.

Asking them to use "common sense" when they are so mystically our betters is like asking them to honor common prayer for the good of the church.

But I agree with your point (and Dcn. Phil's at his blog) about seeking a more excellent way out of the mess.

Anonymous said...

Congrats, Fr. Dan on your lovely granddaughter. Blessings to you.
Fr. Jack Faucett

Dr.D said...

I was a member of the Church of St. James the Less, Philadelphia, a parish that tried to quietly withdraw from the Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1999. We were eventually sued by Bp. Charles Bennison who sued individual vestry members for damages as well as demanding the return of the property. It eventually went to the state supreme court where the bishop won even though the diocese had never invested one red cent in the parish. Every last member of the parish left and became St. Michael the Archangel Anglican parish meeting in a cemetery chapel to this day. The historic building that was St. James the Less, built in 1850, is sitting there abandoned in a very bad part of Philadelphia. It is absolutely useless for anything other than a church and it is surrounded by a grave yard that cannot be moved.

This was a very heart wrenching experience for the parish, but in some respects it was beneficial. That old property was a terrible money sink (although it was a wonderful worship facility, better than any other I have ever known). Now the parish has no building upkeep to worry with, so they have been relieved of a large burden, but at grave cost.

A. S. Haley said...

Congratulations, Father Dan---and not just on your new granddaughter! On account of your superior blogging, you have officially been designated a recipient of the Superior Scribbler Award.

For the story of the Award, see this post. For your judge's citation, and where you go from here, see this post. Merry Christmas!

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