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Fact versus opinion in Tennessee property dispute ruling

Fact versus opinion in Tennessee property dispute ruling

Affirming a trial court’s judgment as sound, a Nashville-based appeals court found for the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee against a former parish’s representatives, court documents testify.

St. Andrew’s [Nashville] contends that it created a genuine issue of material fact concerning whether The Episcopal Church is hierarchical for temporal matters, including property disputes. St. Andrew’s submitted an affidavit by a former bishop of a diocese in Illinois, an affidavit by a board member of a diocese in Florida, and a document entitled Bishops’ Statement on the Polity of The Episcopal Church (the “Bishops’ Statement”). The former bishop stated that The Episcopal Church is not hierarchical for any purpose. The board member opined that The Episcopal Church is not hierarchical for “the issues in this dispute.” The Bishops’ Statement is dated April 18, 2009, and appears to be authored by fifteen or so bishops and former bishops, but does not appear to be sanctioned by The Episcopal Church or the General Convention. The Bishops’ Statement suggests, inter alia, that The Episcopal Church is a voluntary association of equal dioceses.

The affidavits St. Andrew’s offered do not create a disputed issue of material fact because the affiants were simply offering their opinions and interpretations of the constitutions and canons, not facts. The constitutions and canons, as well as St. Andrew’s filings and Articles of Association, speak for themselves and are determinative of the issue. As discussed earlier in this opinion, when resolving disputes involving hierarchical churches, the courts will defer to the highest church authority on questions of church governance. In such situations, the courts “are bound to look at the fact that the local congregation is itself but a member of a much larger and more important religious organization, and is under its government and control, and is bound by its orders and judgments.” Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. at 726-27. We think that includes interpretation of church governing documents and interpretation of the basic organization of the church. Consequently, we cannot conclude that there is a factual question regarding the organization and governance of The Episcopal Church and will not inquire into it.


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Part of what’s compelling here, as always for me, is the couching of concept within language. The court upholds that St. David’s failed to produce a “genuine issue of material fact.” The term has legal weight in that it refers to a dispute precluding summary judgment, but interpretively the words themselves reveal the problem: a former entity of a clearly hierarchical body cannot in this case compellingly argue that the body in question isn’t hierarchical. Especially when what is at stake is the material convenience (property) of the former entity.

Torey Lightcap



Thanks for sharing this. Due to the passage of time, laity all too often no longer even remembers the original issues. I fully support efforts to work closely and respectfully with those whose views differ from our, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there, including the notion that we are not hierarchical. Yet the canons clearly state that the PB has the authority, for example, to determine whether a violation of the canons has occurred.

Eric Bonetti

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