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January 21, 2007 9:26 PM   Subscribe

Who owns your church? A few congregations disagree with the direction their church heirarchy is going. They vote to leave. Who gets the buildings and the church property? If you are politically connected, you might try to change the law in your favor.
posted by humanfont (19 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
This is silly. Of course the FSM owns the churches, albeit in his guise as the Christian GOD.
posted by IronLizard at 9:52 PM on January 21, 2007


Ok, seriously, this is interesting stuff. I'd never heard of the Doctrine of Church Autonomy for heirarchichal churches described in the Times-Dispatch link:

The Episcopal Church, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church, is a hierarchical church, as opposed to a congregational church such as a Baptist church, a Jewish synagogue, or a Muslim mosque. Hierarchical churches are governed by their own sets of laws (e.g., canons) and trial processes to resolve disputes. Congregational churches, on the other hand, self-govern, typically democratically and without superior layered institutions such as dioceses.

The fountainhead of the Doctrine of Church Autonomy is Watson v. Jones, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1871...Watson recognized that the dispute there at issue - although sounding like a property dispute - was really about which group would select pastoral leaders to inculcate the faith among parishioners. Essentially, it was a request for a civil court to side with one theological faction over another. Watson reasoned that because civil courts are "incompetent judges of matters of faith, discipline, and doctrine," they ought to decline jurisdiction over such cases.


Thanks for putting this together; it's an interesting news post with good background.
posted by mediareport at 9:58 PM on January 21, 2007 [1 favorite]


IronLizard, responding to this post with "nuuhhh, God doesn't exist!" is boorish and irrelevant. It's your right to be boorish and irrelevant if you want to, of course, I'm just sayin'.

humanfont, your insinuation of improper political dealings seems a bit FUDdy. When I read that proposed amendment to the state law, it doesn't exactly look nefarious, it seems like the people who wrote it might really just actually believe that the congregation should get the property rather than the church hierarchy - like maybe they just disagree with the federal Supreme Court precedent. And even if they are evil and just proposed it because their friends in those congregations asked them to, do you really consider having the ear of three state legislators "politically connected"? (Or did you mean that working for Fox News makes someone politically connected? I wasn't sure.)

Reading all of this makes me want to bring up two points:

1) Was this matter actually adjudicated upon by an ecclesiastical court? The statement in the news article that the bishop and Diocese of VA declared the property "abandoned" seems to indicate that it hasn't. If this U.S. Supreme Court ruling actually applies, I don't get why the bishop &co wouldn't go get an ecclesiastical court ruling supporting them first, or at least simultaneously, unless they think they'd lose.

A Catholic seminarian friend of mine recently introduced me to the fancy phrase "principle of subsidiarity", which in Catholic church governance generally means that any given issue should be dealt with at as local a level as possible. This article from Anglican Theological Review, although it's about medical ethics, seems to indicate that the Episcopal Church holds a similar principle. So I'm inclined to wonder if an ecclesiastical court in the notoriously open-minded Episcopal Church might actually side with the congregation as they're the ones who have been responsible for the maintenance, care, and improvement of said church property.

It seems possible to me that the Diocese of VA might expect they've got more risk of losing in a church court and that's why they're carrying on this "abandoned property" legerdemain when the buildings are in fact occupied by a group of people who actively gather there and worship and do other community things there. There were a couple paragraphs in that proposed law that seemed to me to be saying "uh, no, church property has to actually be abandoned, through the congregation dwindling or otherwise leaving, before you can declare it abandoned."

2) Surely anyone can at least agree that if the secessionists were actually the founders of those congregations - if they had pooled their money and bought the land and built the churches and other buildings on them - it would be hella wrong for the church hierarchy to get the land and buildings in the outcome of an ideological dispute. The founders of those congregations didn't build all that as a gift to the Episcopal Church hierarchy. In that case bringing in this Doctrine of Church Autonomy would be a misapplication of it - it wouldn't be something that just sounds like a property dispute, it would actually be a property dispute. Given the respectable vintage of the Commonwealth of Virginia I doubt the people involved are the founders of their congregations but I don't think that "Any apparent property dispute is actually a dispute of leadership which is actually a dispute of faith, so Church Autonomy applies" is at all an appropriate response, and if that's what the 1871 decision is prescribing then it's a Dred Scott as far as I'm concerned.
posted by XMLicious at 12:10 AM on January 22, 2007


Surely anyone can at least agree that if the secessionists were actually the founders of those congregations - if they had pooled their money and bought the land and built the churches and other buildings on them - it would be hella wrong for the church hierarchy to get the land and buildings in the outcome of an ideological dispute.

Why? This seems part and parcel of being under the authority of a bishop, or part and parcel of being in a hierarchical church. You are not an independent entity, you are a subsidiary part of a larger entity that retains some very serious amount of control over your affairs. If you can't stand having a larger body or a higher-placed person having any control over your affairs, that probably means that you don't want to be part of a hierarchical church.

I don't think that "Any apparent property dispute is actually a dispute of leadership which is actually a dispute of faith, so Church Autonomy applies" is at all an appropriate response

Of course it is. This isn't an argument about property, it's an argument about the ordination of homosexuals and, maybe and to a lesser degree, the ordination of women. Both of which are disputes of faith and disputes about what kind of person should be forbidden from being a church leader.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:53 AM on January 22, 2007


Surely anyone can at least agree that if the secessionists were actually the founders of those congregations - if they had pooled their money and bought the land and built the churches and other buildings on them - it would be hella wrong for the church hierarchy to get the land and buildings in the outcome of an ideological dispute.

True, but when money is pooled by a congregation to build/establish a church building, the church hierarchy almost invariably asks for the title to the land and the building be signed over to the diocese. There are rare exceptions (self link) in which a single family who owned a church building were able to keep the deed and title, but that is the exception, not the rule.
posted by deanc at 6:50 AM on January 22, 2007


It's your right to be boorish and irrelevant if you want to, of course, I'm just sayin'.

Just so we have that part straight.
posted by IronLizard at 6:55 AM on January 22, 2007


Related--wasn't there a statement from some evangelical leader in the last year about all the property that is owned by some declining mainline churches, and the opportunities this presented for fundamentalists to take them over and take their stuff?
posted by LarryC at 7:56 AM on January 22, 2007


XMLicious, I think the "politically connected" bit relates directly to Fred Barnes of Fox and his connection to the Institute for Religion and Democracy, which has lots of connections to the churches who are splitting - connections that apparently don't get mentioned when Fox covers the story. It's not FUDdy at all; instead, it looks like a classic case of well-positioned folks using their influence to sneak around precedent with special exemptions.

IronLizard: Just so we have that part straight.

Let's also get straight that you're not as funny as you think you are and should probably think about staying out of threads if all you have to offer is stupid "frist post!" humor. Nothing personal, natch, more of a general rule of the universe kind of thing.
posted by mediareport at 8:16 AM on January 22, 2007


I don't really have sympathy for the breakaways, considering that they broke away because of their own intolerance, but this does make me wonder what would happen if the Catholic Church ever came after the Anglican heirarchy for all of the churches and land it stole in the 16th century. That would be thousands of churches and thousands of acres of land that the break-aways kept, and still have to this day (though some are now empty and friendless).
posted by jb at 9:26 AM on January 22, 2007


Very interesting collection of articles and discussion of congregation vs dioceses rights. I grew up in the Episcopal Church, and it makes me sad to see people leaving the church (which in most parts of the country already has dwindling numbers) over the parts of the organization that I found most endearing (inclusiveness, progressive tendancies).
posted by twoporedomain at 9:26 AM on January 22, 2007


This sort of thing is going on right here in St. Louis, as part of the fun pedo-priest backlash. You see, tithing went way the hell down after it came out that the Catholic Church has been shuffling around its shorteyes clergy, so much so that they're closing up Godboxes like a small, locally-owned chain of bookstores in the face of Borders. Some of the faithful want to keep their buildings, and, well, that's where the legal fun begins.
posted by adipocere at 10:15 AM on January 22, 2007


Another factor in this issue is that these congregations may have broken canon law during the process of voting to leave the Episcopal Church. The WaPo reported that many of the members of these parishes were not Episcopalians at all, nor were they encouraged to become Episcopalians. Rather, they were "orthodox" members of other denominations. Now, the Episcopal church is pretty liberal about who we call a member, and who we'll give communion to. If you're a disgruntled Presbyterian who wants to join us on Sundays, no prob. But if you're a disgruntled Presbyterian who wants to be a member of the Vestry, or vote on parish issues like leaving the Church, well then, you need to be a "communicant in good standing" which requires you to be confirmed or received by an Episcopal Bishop. If Truro or Falls Church allowed people who didn't fit these criteria to vote, then the vote itself would seem to be invalid.
posted by Biblio at 10:24 AM on January 22, 2007


Parishes have been leaving the Episcopal Church at a fair clip over recent years. After a lot of sturm und drang, the way it's worked is that the diocese ends up selling the land and church to the congregation for a lot of money, but still less than market value.

It's a sensible deal: no diocesan bishop wants to litigate this and lose, thus freeing every parish (many of which sit on very valuable land, given the economic pre-eminence of Episcopals for much of American history) to split with impunity. And it's not like the mainstream (liberal) Episcopal church is growing in numbers and in dire need of facilities. (The new presiding bishop is actually proud of this, taking the church's declining rolls as a sign that Episcopals are being good, negative-population-growth stewards of the environment.)
posted by MattD at 10:40 AM on January 22, 2007


So I'm inclined to wonder if an ecclesiastical court in the notoriously open-minded Episcopal Church might actually side with the congregation as they're the ones who have been responsible for the maintenance, care, and improvement of said church property.

It seems possible to me that the Diocese of VA might expect they've got more risk of losing in a church court...


I doubt that an ecclesiastical court would go against the property interest of the church in favor of Episcopals Behaving Badly.

2) Surely anyone can at least agree that if the secessionists were actually the founders of those congregations - if they had pooled their money and bought the land and built the churches and other buildings on them - it would be hella wrong for the church hierarchy to get the land and buildings in the outcome of an ideological dispute. The founders of those congregations didn't build all that as a gift to the Episcopal Church hierarchy.

I'm not sure about all the by-laws and stuff of the Episcopal Church, but yeah, that's pretty much the way the Presbyterian Church USA works: the title of the church building is held by the Presbytery, and the pastor and other employees are *not* employees of the individual congregation, but employees of the Presbytery (in a technical, legal sense). The Session (ruling body of the congregation) is generally giving the freedom to run congregational affairs as they see fit, but if they do not follow the Book of Order, the Presbytery has authority over them and can remove the ruling elders from the Session.

But the property clearly belongs to the Presbytery.


Related--wasn't there a statement from some evangelical leader in the last year about all the property that is owned by some declining mainline churches, and the opportunities this presented for fundamentalists to take them over and take their stuff?

If so, it would not be a simple "moving in" by the fundamentalist churches; it would be a formal sale of the property by the hierarchical church to a different church organization. The authority of the church that owns the property would not be abridged.
posted by Doohickie at 10:46 AM on January 22, 2007


XMLicious, I'm afraid you don't know what you are talking about.

I'm inclined to wonder if an ecclesiastical court in the notoriously open-minded Episcopal Church might actually side with the congregation .. It seems possible to me that the Diocese of VA might expect they've got more risk of losing in a church court

No. Canon law is quite clear on this issue. The Dennis Canon (introduced in 1979 to prevent congregations seceding over the ordination of women) states that church property belongs to the diocese. A church court would certainly uphold this.

Surely anyone can at least agree that if the secessionists were actually the founders of these churches - if they had pooled their money and bought the land and built the churches and other buildings on them - it would be hella wrong for the church hierarchy to get the land and buildings in the outcome of an ideological dispute.

No. The founders of these churches agreed to submit to Episcopal canon law. And even if you accept (which I don't) that the church property belongs to the congregation, you would still have to accept that they hold it in trust, not just for their own benefit but also for their successors. If they leave the Episcopal Church, taking the church property with them, they are breaking that trust.

There is another important point, which is not touched on either in the links or in the discussion. This is not simply a dispute between the congregations and the diocese. The congregations are divided among themselves -- a sizable majority has voted to leave the Episcopal Church, but a significant minority voted to stay.

There is a relevant legal precedent here -- the Kedroff case of 1952, where the American members of the Russian Orthodox Church voted, by a majority, to break away from the Moscow patriarchate. The Supreme Court ruled that the church property (including the Russian Orthodox cathedral in New York) belonged to the minority who had remained in communion with Moscow.

In short, I don't see that the dissident congregations have a leg to stand on. But they have a lot of money, and a lot of big guns, and may force the diocese to agree some sort of compromise deal which will enable them to keep a proportion of the church property.

It's interesting how differently this conflict played itself out in England, where a lot of inner-city church buildings are very run-down and expensive to maintain. When parishes threatened to leave the C of E over the ordination of women, the response from the dioceses was often: 'Yes! Please leave -- and take your crumbling Victorian church with you!' (jb: I have heard it proposed, half-seriously, that the best solution to the Church of England's financial crisis would be to hand the cathedrals back to the Roman Catholics. The cost of maintaining them would instantly bankrupt the Catholic Church.)
posted by verstegan at 2:44 PM on January 22, 2007


MattD: It's a sensible deal: no diocesan bishop wants to litigate this and lose

I was about to point out that this has been litigated, so that case law seems pretty clear on the issue, but verstegan seems to have beaten me to it.

Another example is when a community of Eastern Rite Catholics in Connecticut left the Catholic Church in favor of the Orthodox Church in the 1930s. During the ensuing lawsuit, the property remained in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church, leaving the parishioners to rebuild their church all over again. The linked-to story mentions that the lawsuit went all the way up to the Supreme Court, but it doesn't mention the name of the specific case.

My friend actually told me he has a lot of the old legal papers about that suit at his house. He explained: "My grandfather was an Orthodox priest... and a lawyer."
posted by deanc at 6:35 PM on January 22, 2007


The IRD is a particularly nasty group.

Their objective is splitting mainline Protestant churches.

As a bunch right wing Catholics funded by reclusive billionaires I think it would be proper for Rome to chasten them for interfering with the Protestants.

Also, there's a documentary coming out soon about the IRD and their dirty tricks campaigns from Steve Martin (no, not that one.) The Talk2Action blog covers the IRD issue extensively and if you go over there stop by and say hello to troutfishing (Bruce)!
posted by nofundy at 6:05 AM on January 23, 2007


Methinks this post is boring and the intelligent responses completely lacking in awareness of the vast, noodly, all-entangling nature of the FSM.
posted by mongonikol at 12:20 PM on January 23, 2007


There is only a single rule for playing ARGs.

That is, you must follow the rules.

According to Church rules, Church property is owned by the Church.

Bringing in outside authorities is to introduce another game into a game.

Pardon the mixed metaphor, but, while it is true the Justice League on occassion does cross-over with the X-Men (and vice-versa), everyone knows these encounters are undesirable as they are considered preposterous...particularly because different rules apply to the respective universii.

Church is an ARG. Federal government is an ARG. Play by the rules, or don't play.

And for the rest of us, anyway, religion is a strange game.
posted by mongonikol at 12:38 PM on January 23, 2007


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