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Six lessons learned from property recovery litigation

Six lessons learned from property recovery litigation

by Eric Bonetti

With the majority of the property litigation now seemingly behind us, it may be time to reflect on the disputes with the Anglican congregations. Are there lessons to be learned? Do these controversies tell us anything about our role in American society, both today and in the future? Are there things that, with the advantage of hindsight, we might do differently?

I believe that the litigation does, in fact, provide us with a unique opportunity for introspection and self-evaluation. And while there are some things that, with the advantage of hindsight, we might have done differently, I believe that, on the whole, The Episcopal Church has responded appropriately to the challenges we have faced.

With that in mind, following are some conclusions this author has drawn from the litigation:

1. We’re Resilient

In the early days of the dispute, the Rev. Geoffrey Chapman, rector of a conservative parish in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, drafted a now-infamous strategy memo (available here), in which he outlined a “cluster strategy,” whereby parishes would depart in groups in an effort to overwhelm loyalists. The ultimate goal, Chapman stated, would be replacement of The Episcopal Church’s current governance structure with one of the Anglicans’ choosing. Tellingly, Chapman predicted that “ECUSA will certainly lose members and funds at a high rate over the next months, accelerating their decline.”

Since then, we have not seen The Episcopal Church collapse, nor have we seen any meaningful move towards a replacement hierarchy. Instead, we have seen declines in giving and membership very consistent with that of other mainstream denominations, including the Roman Catholic church. Meanwhile, some signs actually are promising, including more than $2 million raised to date for repairs to the earthquake-damaged Washington National Cathedral, and membership and giving stabilizing in some areas. Some, like my parish, have taken the events as a call towards renewal, growth, and becoming an “inviting parish.”

2. Public Opinion Increasingly Favors The Episcopal Church

The departing congregations also were very much out of touch with majority public opinion on GLBT rights and marriage equality.

In his memo, Chapman refers to the consecration of openly gay Rev. Gene Robinson, as an Episcopal bishop, saying, “No one is very happy about this inside ECUSA, and the American public is hardly cheering the events in New Hampshire.” A curious assertion, in light of the vote at General Convention on this matter, and the subsequent consecration of the Rev. Mary Glasspool, a lesbian, as a bishop.

Today, 12 states have endorsed marriage equality, and all involved recognize that there is a sea change in public support for same-gender couples. Indeed, recent surveys show that even here in Virginia — which is notoriously conservative on social issues and an epicenter of the Anglican movement — a majority support marriage equality. Thus, while the dissidents argue that opposition to gay rights is an ethical issue not susceptible to public opinion, their original argument, which claimed to be a majority perspective, increasingly is proving to be untrue, both within the church and society as a whole.

3. Memories are Short When in Litigation

Even among loyal Episcopalians, one often hears complaints about the cost — and underlying intent — of the property recovery litigation. Yet, in such cases, one all too often finds that the complainant has forgotten about the years spent trying to find a compromise with the dissidents. For example, it was concerns about the reaction of the right wing of the church that led to what was, in many cases, 30 years of lip service to the promises of equality for GLBT church members.

Similarly, many today have forgotten the underlying premise of the dissident congregations as set forth in the Sewickley memo. The premise of that memo was not freedom of conscience. It was the destruction of The Episcopal Church and the toppling of our duly elected hierarchy. My belief is that such behavior is reprehensible and bullying of the first order, and persons of faith are justified — and perhaps required — to resist.

Indeed, if there is any fault to be found in the church’s handling of the dissidents, it was in trying too hard to find a workable compromise. As a mentor of mine metaphorically said many years ago about a strategic business decision, “If you are attacked with a deadly weapon, and all your assailant wants is your wallet, by all means give it to him. If, on the other hand, your assailant is trying to kill you, fight back for all you’re worth, because handing over your wallet isn’t going to do you any good at all.”

In short, in most cases, compromise was never an option available to us, and our efforts to arrive at fair-minded solutions may even have been seen as reflecting a lack of will, versus respect and a desire to behave with honor.

4. The Anglican Communion is Political

This comes as no surprise.

That said, the close ties that we as Americans enjoy with the United Kingdom led many, myself included, to initially conclude that the Archbishop of Canterbury would exercise his role as “first among equals” to insist that the other primates and provinces respect the territorial sovereignty of The Episcopal Church.

The reality, however, was that while the Primates gave lip service to the importance of preventing cross-border raids, far greater emphasis was placed by the Primates on calling for “Alternative Episcopal Oversight,” or oversight of dissident parishes by bishops sympathetic to their views. Similarly, when the Anglican Covenant was proposed, there appeared little, if any, discussion, about how the Covenant might be used to prevent cross-border raids; instead, the focus was on how a province that threatened to disrupt the unity of the Communion might be brought into line with the views of the majority.

In short, in the midst of this debate, the Anglican Communion has been far more worried about trying to force others to agree, and far less about preventing bullying. Yet if the Communion is to have any value at all, it must start from the premise that it is a safe place, founded on mutual support, respect, and fair dealing, along with a recognition that it is neither possible, nor desirable, for all involved to be in total agreement, even on key issues.

5. It’s Time to Review our Canons

In cases such as the recent property recovery litigation, it is probably a given that no amount of working or reworking of the canons would be enough to head off trouble. After all, the so-called Dennis Canon, which was written in response to earlier Supreme Court property cases, is clear on its face: All church property is held either for the diocese, or The Episcopal Church as a whole. Further, this approach reflects a commonsense understanding of life in a hierarchical church: If I give money to my parish, but later decide to leave, I don’t get my money back, nor do I get to cart off the church building.

Yet, an examination of the governing documents of other denominations reveals that others have addressed some of the issues at far greater length, and with far greater specificity. In light of the time and trouble we have faced in recent years, it just makes sense to revisit our canons, to apply any specific lessons learned, and try to preempt future issues whenever possible.

6. Respect Isn’t What it Used to Be

Years ago, it was normative to join a church when moving to a new home. Similarly, it was a given that one would support one’s local church, both financially and otherwise. And clergy was entitled to deference and respect, particularly in the case of one’s bishop.

Today, however, this just isn’t the case. Church canons say that all property is held by the diocese or the national church? Too bad–I’m going to argue that I bought and paid for them, disregarding the generations of Episcopalians who went before me and their collective intent. My diocese is blessing same-gender couples? I’m going to leave and take my church building with me, even though nothing says I have to bless anyone.

So what’s the solution? There is no easy answer. But as we work towards a renewed understanding of what it means to be an Episcopalian, my fervent hope is that we neither lose sight of our rich heritage, nor of our shared bond that brings us together as a faith community. I hope, too, is that we will take the lessons of the past few years as a call to articulate a powerful message of inclusive, liberal Christianity that rejoices in all aspects of God’s creation.

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

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John B. Chilton

Meanwhile, over at ACNA HQ not all is a bed of roses. Who are these individual donors the ACNA HOB write of who are ACNA’s budget shortfall?


“…not a large enough percentage of our Provincial income comes from diocesan giving. At this stage of our corporate life, what the dioceses give has to be supplemented by other individual gifts in order to fully fund the Province’s lean budget.”

Katie Sherrod

I suspect that Mr. Bonetti’s statement that “the majority of the property litigation [is] now seemingly behind us” was referring to the litigation in Virginia. Certainly, we here in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth know that not to be the case as we wait, and wait, and wait for the Texas Supreme Court to release its opinion on the appeal of the breakaway faction. I suspect my sisters and brothers in San Joaquin, Quincy, and South Carolina would agree.

I do agree with many of the lessons learned that he lists, especially the futility of attempting to negotiate or reconcile with the dissidents. In my experience, they are not interested in reconciliation. They want capitulation.

I agree that we are resilient. Those in our diocese who were displaced from their buildings by people who left The Episcopal Church but claimed our property are weary of literally creating church (constructing an altar and then breaking it down again) in rented property Sunday after Sunday for nearly five years. But their spirit is healthy and they continue to grow, not only in numbers but in strength and faith.

One of the costs of the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s efforts to appease the bullies in the Anglican Communion has been a widespread loss of respect for him, and a distancing on the part of many Episcopalians from any sense of connection with the Anglican Communion. That is a sad, but predictable result of the scapegoating of The Episcopal Church by Rowan Williams.

And I regret the short memories of too many Episcopalians who wonder out loud and often why we should even be in court. I applaud Mr. Bonetti’s work in setting that record straight.

I wish the people of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia much joy as they reach the end of their litigation, and I long for the day when we can join them in that joy.

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