San Diego Bishop Sues Three Parishes!
Pastoral Letter: August 2007, The Transfiguration of Jesus
As we are all aware, there have been some congregations that have split away from their diocese and the Episcopal Church because of real disagreements over theology and questions of sexuality….They have also suggested that property in the Episcopal Church is parish owned, “we paid for it, it is ours, and we can do with it whatever we want.” In our own Diocese, we have had nine congregations that had departures of various numbers of people. The leadership of three departing groups has made a claim of right to possess the parish property. This has necessitated our Diocese initiating legal action to recover that property so we can begin the process of rebuilding those congregations.
A few days ago I got this pastoral letter hardcopy, folded into our diocesan newspaper, The Church Times—not to be confused with The Church Times (UK), an excellent publication for which I write. As the diocesan financial and legal difficulties deepen, The Church Times (San Diego) has evolved from a pedestrian newsprint item into a professional production on heavy, glossy paper filled with full-color pictures of smiling Episcopalians.
I have considerable sympathy with the views on sexual ethics of liberals in the Episcopal Church, including presumably, the Bishop of San Diego: I agree with them that there is nothing morally wrong with homosexual activity. But before you assume that I “don’t have any morals” I should note that I regard the arrogance and hypocrisy of liberal clergy, and their strong-arm tactics as shockingly immoral. They put on the armor of righteousness convinced that they were divinely commissioned not only to enlighten members of the Episcopal Church but to exert prophetic moral leadership in the World, and were cock-sure that they would get their way by “using psychology”—by manipulating laypeople—and by bullying conservative clergy.
Even now as the Church is undergoing meltdown, the Princes of the Church and their courtiers, like their counterparts in the secular regime, are determined to stay the course. The bishop seems convinced that with enough legal firepower he will be able to capture territory from dissident congregations and achieve “mission accomplished” within a year. He also claims to believe that once dissident clergy and laypeople have been forced out of their churches, rebuilding will be relatively unproblematic—or at least feasible:
In each and every case, it is my intention to rebuild vibrant, Christ-centered ministries in congregations that have been seriously affected…
Following current events in the secular world, I’m not so sure about that. Mission accomplished is quick and easy—you can beat up bad guys and level an entire country in three weeks of shock and awe. Rebuilding is quite another thing and I’m not sure how the bishop plans to accomplish this task in those seriously affected congregations.
This bishop’s letter is very light on specifics and on figures. Once conservative dissidents have been forced out of their churches, how big will the righteous remnant in each church be? 100? 50? 10? I rather doubt that there will be a sufficient number to maintain the property. The bishop however seems to believe that once ethnic cleansing is complete local residents who, presumably, had been scared off by the bigots and homophobes occupying the facility would flood into the church to establish vibrant, Christ-centered ministries.
This also seems highly unlikely and I doubt that the bishop or anyone else really believes it. We can make an educated guess about what will happen. The diocese will install part-time, retired or non-stipendiary clergy in these parishes and operate them as missions for a few years, making a show of working to establish vibrant, Christ-centered ministries and then, when they’re sure no one is looking, sell them off. San Diego county real estate still fetches a good price and the Diocese should be able to extract a pretty penny from creative entrepreneurs looking to turn the buildings into church-themed restaurants or nightclubs or to developers who will tear them down to build condos.
I do not know whether the bishop agrees with my predictions or not, that is, whether he is a hypocrite or a self-deceiver, however he clearly disagrees with my description of the proceedings. He is under the impression that, leaving aside issues of civil and canon law, even from the moral point of view the church buildings and property these congregations financed and maintained never really belonged to them in the first place.
While clearly we hope every parish will be financially self-sustaining through the stewardship of parishioners, it is far from precise to assume that all assets of a parish are the result of parishioner giving. In many cases, the Diocese invested significantly at the front end when the parishes were missions.
Again, the figures are missing. How much did the diocese kick in upfront when these churches were fledgling missions? And how much did they return to the diocese in the mission share they kicked back over the years or decades when they were self-supporting parishes? Of course, money isn’t everything. They also paid the diocese in kind, feeding the sheep and providing services that would otherwise have to be financed from the diocesan coffers. Whatever the law says, this is a moral issue—and ethics trumps civil and even canon law.
The bishop however believes that he has an independent moral argument. It’s a matter of honoring the donors’ intentions:
More importantly, these congregations were begun as Episcopal communities. Every gift given would rightly be assumed to have been given to an Episcopal congregation. As far as our canons are concerned, they do indeed assume a trust relationship—that is, that the property is held in trust for the ministry of the Episcopal Church. That is why the diocese deeds the property to a newly established parish, because it can rightly assume a perpetual relationship of trust…
But what did donors intend? Did they intend to provide support to a congregation that was Episcopal regardless of what remarkable theological novelties the Episcopal Church would, in the future, adopt? One suspects that they intended to buy a coach—not a coach that would turn into a pumpkin.
Most importantly, these disputes over property are the presenting issue where we defend our ordered church with Episcopal authority, preventing an unintended slide towards congregationalism…
Well, that sent chills up my spine. I certainly wouldn’t want to belong to the Congregationalist Church—a non-liturgical church with dull talky services and communion is shot glasses, at the theologically dilute end of Calvinism. But what I don’t like in Congregationalism is the non-liturgical, non-sacramental character of the worship and the theology, not the polity—not congregationalism as such. A little more lower-case congregationalism might be a good thing in the Episcopal Church so that money doesn’t keep getting sucked up the food chain.
And, speaking of money and the food chain, it seems the bishop has a substantial war chest.
I have been raising funds to rebuild congregations hard hit by departures. To date we have raised $500,000 from generous donors. While a recent Court of Appeals decision gives some reason for us to be optimistic that our litigation will end favorably within a year, some of these funds will regrettably have to be used to pay our legal fees. As I imagine us in five years, I see all our congregations stronger—including those we are rebuilding.
Some of these funds? Of course from the logical point of view that’s consistent with “all of these funds.” It’s also consistent with “all of these funds and then some.” But don’t worry: if the legal fees go over the top, the profit from sales of the buildings down the road will make up the shortfall—and much, much more besides.
THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HERE ARE MY OWN AND SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN TO REPRESENT THE VIEWS OF MY EMPLOYER. IF YOU LINK, QUOTE OR CITE PLEASE INCLUDE THIS DISCLAIMER AND DO NOT INCLUDE MY ACADEMIC AFFILIATION.