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Property litigation: What if we gave up the buildings?

Property litigation: What if we gave up the buildings?

As someone who has been generally supportive of the need to litigate to retrieve Episcopal Church property appropriated by groups that have left the church because it is moving toward the full inclusion of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender Christians, I was moved and challenged by this essay by Dan Ennis, senior warden of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Conway, South Carolina, who expresses an opposing view so eloquently that it has given me pause.

In “Victorious Surrender”, he writes:

On most Sundays, our joy of being free of the negativity and division that for so long shrouded our diocese competes with rootless anxiety. Worship groups are tenants, with leases subject to change. We get bumped from the schedule when our landlords need the space. We update our websites when we change addresses. From lining up supply priests to storing reserved sacrament in the absence of a tabernacle, worship groups manage week-to-week. We’ve been reminded how little we need, and how easily we had allowed non-essentials to encrust our faith, like barnacles on a ship. (I should substitute “dock” for “ship,” in deference to the worship group at Okatie, which did for a time worship on a dock. I still repeat their joke about “casting bread upon the waters.”)

Resentment is tempting. Why should we be reduced to rented sanctuaries and makeshift altars simply because we wanted to remain Episcopalian? A man moves here from California, decides The Episcopal Church no longer suits him, and we’re the ones told to hit the bricks? Why has his decision to leave our church left us in this bind?

Resentment? We should give thanks. Leaving our buildings has been a blessing, and losing them for good would be a godsend.


St. Francis Episcopal Church in West Ashley worships in a funeral home. St. Catherine’s in Florence meets in a school. The Episcopal Church in Myrtle Beach is already in its third location, having moved from a back porch to a rented classroom to a building on loan from the Methodists. The Church of the Good Shepherd in Summerville and the East Cooper Episcopalians are also borrowing space from the Methodists. (Thank God for the Methodists!) These are not the watchposts we would choose, but we are called to keep watch nonetheless.

If after a season we find our mission would be served by owning our own buildings, we will have arrived at that point after a worthwhile (if occasionally inconvenient) period in relative wilderness. We will have to buy or build those watchposts on our own, and we’ll enter them after we’ve been thoroughly reminded that we should view property as a sharp tool –potentially useful, but dangerous to the careless. We’ll be wiser; perhaps wise enough to pity and love those who now appear to be “winning.”

So by letting go – letting all that brick and mortar pass into hands more desperate than ours – we win. We fulfill the promises made at baptism and embraced at confirmation. We avoid a decade of claims and counter-claims with those with whom we used to worship. We devote our resources to the Great Commission, not great attorneys. We can be both in the right and willing to be wronged.

The property under dispute in our diocese is the second-place trophy in the only race that matters. Wouldn’t we rather come in first?

It may just be Dan’s eloquence, but I am wondering if the church’s legal strategy, at least in some locations, is in need of review. What do you think?


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Harriet Baber

I’m curious. As a thought experiment: would TEC have adopted the same scorched earth policy toward a congregation that decided to go Unitarian. Or Buddhist? Or one that decided to revision itself as non-theistic humanist “church”?

John Campbell

Several miscellaneous comments:

1. I agree with Lionel Deimel’s assessment that part of TEC’s litigation strategy is to discourage parishes from leaving in the future, but I would put a slightly different spin on it: My bet is there are many parishes that would delight in leaving TEC but who stay only because of the threat of property litigation. Thus the PB’s scorched earth stance exists primarily out of her justifiable fear that any fair negotiation policy would result in a mass exodus.

2. Readers should be reminded that in Virginia, the PB intervened and broke off a pre-existing negotiation protocol between the diocese and the departing parishes. That protocol acknowledged that the first step the departing parishes had to take following their votes was to file reports in the circuit courts of their respective counties to comply with Virginia law. These were reports, not lawsuits. The lawsuits came from the diocese.

3. Observing that every recent case of a diocese or parish voting to leave TEC has resulted in legal action, the Diocese of South Carolina knew it was coming. South Carolina did file first, but I would characterize it as preemptive defense rather than an offensive strike against an adversary who may otherwise have walked away.

4. Some have mentioned a lack of willingness to negotiate by departing parishes. But the PB has already made known her terms for “negotiation”: Fair market value for the property, plus a vow that the parish cannot call itself Anglican or support the ACNA. Fair market value seems a reasonable starting point for negotiations. But the ACNA stipulation is ridiculous. It goes to show that the PB’s real interest here is in bleeding the ACNA, not justice. Knowing that these are the terms, why would any ACNA-inclined parish offer to “negotiate”?

John Campbell

Ann Fontaine

Tim – there are places where negotiation and not litigation has been successful. Most of the lawsuits are where those departing made no attempt to negotiate or who sued TEC first.

Tfountain The Presbyterians, in at least some places, have found a way to do this stuff without all the sorry litigation. It is a choice.

Tim Fountain

Ann Fontaine

“We should put these priests in the Pension

Fund and wait for them to come home” — those who have left the Episcopal Church retain their pensions – there is not taking their pensions away. Many benefit or will benefit from the Pension Fund. They stay in the Pension Fund and receive on the basis of what was contributed when they were Episcopal priests.

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