Beyond Episcopal theological split, a property fight
The Episcopal Church is battling breakaway parishes over who owns the local assets.
When a congregation breaks away from a denomination, who keeps the real estate?Skip to next paragraph
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That's become a contentious issue within the Episcopal Church – the US branch of Anglicanism – as almost 100 parishes have voted to leave the church in the wake of its 2003 consecration of a gay bishop. Most aim to stay in their houses of worship while realigning themselves with conservative Anglican bishops in other countries.
On Wednesday, Anglican bishops from around the world gather in Britain to discuss their differences over scriptural interpretation and homosexuality at the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference. But in America, those differences are already ending up in court.
The stakes are high. Not only are some of the properties valuable, the legal battle over them is wrenching apart close-knit religious communities. Presbyterians and other denominations are keeping a close eye on the wrangling because they also have conservative congregations that are trying to pull out in response to actions of their denominations.
So far, the courts have not clarified the issue. Some congregations have had to forfeit their houses of worship. But on June 27, a Virginia county court upheld the constitutionality of a Civil War-era state law that would allow 11 congregations to leave the Episcopal Church and take their property with them. The law, called the "Division Statute," provides that when evidence exists that a church is in a state of "division," the local congregation can decide who controls the property.
"We see the ruling as a validation of the stand we have taken – these are properties our parishioners have paid for and maintained over the years," says Jim Oakes, vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, an association of breakaway congregations now linked to the archbishop of Nigeria.
But canon law of the Episcopal Church, like those of several US denominations, stipulates that all property is held in trust for the denomination and not owned by the local church. When congregations choose to leave, control of church property reverts to the diocese.
Church law "provides that property of the church at any level is held in trust for the Episcopal Church – a very important canon in a hierarchical church," says Stephen Hutchinson, a canon law expert of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. (Representatives of the national church declined the opportunity to comment.)
The Virginia ruling is worrying other denominations with similar structures. The decision is "deeply troubling" and "a violation of the First Amendment," Bishop Charlene Kammerer, leader of the United Methodist Church in Virginia, said in a statement.
The local congregations involved, which voted in December 2006 to pull out, include parishes of considerable historical value, such as Falls Church, where George Washington was a member, and nearby Truro Church, wealthy and prestigious congregations with properties together worth an estimated $25 million.