Sunday, March 07, 2010

Lent and Lawsuits, Part 2

As I said in my last post, according to budget figures analyzed by Attorney A.S. Haley (a must read), the Episcopal Church has spent $2.2 million more than was budgeted in 2009 on "Legal Assistance to Dioceses" (i.e., lawsuits against departing parishes) resulting in a projected operating loss for the year of $ 1,708,283.

Keep in mind that this is not the only amount being spent on lawsuits. The Diocese of Virginia has been involved in a multi-year, multi-million dollar suit against departing parishes that has now gone to the Virginia Supreme Court. A similar suit in South Carolina was won by the local parish, but is being appealed to the US Supreme Court.

It is important to remember that the Diocese of Virginia had negotiated and drawn up settlements with departing parishes in northern Virginia prior to the election and enthronement of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. But the PB, upon taking office, made (who knows how?) the Diocese of Virginia renege on those negotiations.

A Tale of Two Churches

What does the Episcopal Church stand to gain from these suits? Let's at look at the statistics for two churches.

St. John's Church Huntingdon Valley, PA (Diocese of Pennsylvania) walked away from their property in 2003. The parish, which had an average Sunday attendance of around 250 and offerings of around $350,000 before the departure of the majority of the congregation, now has an average Sunday attendance of less than 50 and offering receipts of around $50,000! It doesn't take a genius to realize that you can't keep a congregation in that situation open without generous subsidies. The property alone needs more than $50,000 per year for utilities and maintenance, not to mention compensation for a priest. Meanwhile, the 85-90% majority of the congregation that departed is flourishing in another Philadelphia suburb.

The Falls Church, Falls Church, VA (Diocese of Virginia) is one of the congregations with which the Diocese of Virginia would have settled had not the Presiding Bishop ordered a U-turn on that deal. The overwhelming majority has become part of the Anglican District of Virginia, affiliated with CANA and the Anglican Church in Nigeria and currently retains possession of their building, based on a lower court ruling that is being appealed. A remnant who wanted to remain in TEC meets almost across the street from their former church. How are they doing?

In 2005, the Falls Church had a membership of 2800, with average Sunday attendance running around 1900, and annual offerings totaling $4.5 million. In the past two years, statistics for the remnant TEC congregation show a membership of under 100. The average Sunday attendance is around 50, and income is somewhere less than $100,000. (In fact, it is hard to tell the current "plate and pledge" amount, because the graph that is calibrated to deal with previous year's incomes in the millions doesn't afford the level of detail to peg the current amount very precisely.) The Anglican Falls Church has continued to grow and now has an average attendance of well over 2000.

The sizable attendance the Falls Church has experienced is a direct reflection of the nature and quality of the ministry that has gone on there in recent decades. Just as the example of St. John's, Huntingdon Valley, PA demonstrates (above), the Episcopal Church would have to be seriously deluded to think that any ministry they would conduct there would draw enough people to pay the utility bills.

So, in essence, the Presiding Bishop has forced (again, how?) the Diocese of Virginia to spend several million dollars to fight for property they can't use if they win it. The same is true for Truro Church, in Fairfax, VA, and several other northern Virginia congregations where there is no remaining Episcopal congregation that even wants the property.

The reality is that dioceses of the Episcopal Church where property is at issue could have reaped millions of dollars in settlements through negotiations over the property instead of spending millions of dollars in legal fees by suing departing congregations. If we accept that national church and diocesan leaders have a "fiduciary responsibility" to maintain the assets of the Episcopal Church, then could they not have met that responsibility more effectively by seeking settlements, wherever possible, with departing congregations instead of suing them? It could well be argued that national and diocesan leaders have violated their fiduciary responsibility by recklessly engaging in lawsuits where out-of court settlements might have been possible.

Two cases in point: 1. The Diocese of Colorado where "unrestricted reserves fell from nearly $5 million in 2006, to $750,000 today, due mainly to litigation over Grace Church in Colorado Springs. This represents not only a deep decline in money available to the diocese, but in investment income generated by those reserves."

2. The Diocese of Central New York, where the church building of St. Andrew's Church, in Vestal, was taken over by the Episcopal diocese shortly before Christmas of 2007 and is now vacant and for sale, while St. Andrew's congregation is worshiping elsewhere and thriving. The Church of the Good Shepherd, in Binghamton, also had its building taken in a lawsuit by the diocese. That building also sits vacant while the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd continues to worship and grow in a new location.

From a January 2010 article in Christianity Today, entitled "Land and Building Wars":
Valerie J. Munson, who runs a religion and law center at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, has counseled a dozen U.S. Anglican parishes and finds all the litigation unfortunate.

"A lot of money is being spent by the Episcopal Church to litigate cases that could very easily be settled," says Munson, a PC(USA) elder. "In a justice system where over 90 percent of cases are settled, it's a bit of a mystery as to why a Christian denomination would choose to spend its resources on every dispute that comes up."

"...a mystery as to why a Christian denomination would choose to spend its resources on every dispute that comes up." Indeed.

So why is the Episcopal Church engaging in costly lawsuits with such abandon? The following quotations from an article that originally appeared in The Washington Times (fortunately preserved by Stand Firm) give a clue:
In video taped testimony presented to the Fairfax County Circuit Court, Bishop Schori said she ordered Virginia Bishop Peter Lee to break a verbal agreement allowing the 11 parishes to withdraw from the diocese so as to prevent “incursions by foreign bishops.”

"I told Bishop Lee I could not support negotiations for sale if the congregations intended to set up as other parts of the Anglican Communion," Bishop Jefferts Schori said."


Under further questioning by attorneys for CANA, she said that had the property been sold to a Methodist or Baptist congregation, she would not have objected.

But, "the Episcopal Church, for matters of its own integrity, cannot encourage other parts of the Anglican Communion to set up shop within its jurisdiction," she said in her deposition."

So it appears that the Episcopal Church's pursuit of litigation has more to do with denying property to departing congregations that wish to remain Anglican than with exercising a fiduciary responsibility for church assets.

Indeed rather than preserving Episcopal Church assets, the chief motivation seems to be to deny (seemingly at any cost) resources to anyone who would dare call himself or herself an Anglican apart from the Episcopal Church. In the process Episcopalians are being encouraged to view departing brothers and sisters as enemies, with the litigation resulting in acrimony and spiritual damage of the sort that the Church is supposed to exist to heal.

There is only one word for such an endeavor that is conducted without regard for cost or consequences: obsession. But I would submit that, whether one is speaking of the material or spiritual cost, it is an obsession that the Episcopal Church cannot afford.

Loyal Episcopalians who are concerned about the spiritual and financial well-being of their Church need to hold the leadership responsible for these overexpenditures and demand a halt to the litigation now.


(1) There will undoubtedly be those who object to what I have said here. But it needs to be noted that I am not taking sides in the matter of who owns church properties, I am simply arguing against the path the Episcopal Church is taking in resolving property disputes.

(2) It will be alleged by some on "the other side" that legal victories by the Episcopal Church justify these lawsuits. (a.) Any thinking person knows that there is always a danger in "the end justifies the means" kind of rationalization. (b.) One only has to look at Plessy v. Ferguson, the Dred Scott decision, or Roe v. Wade to see that a legal right and a moral right are not always the same thing.

(3) I remain a priest of the Episcopal Church. There are those (chiefly among those who claim to want an "inclusive" Church) who would say I am being disloyal and that there isn't any room in the Episcopal Church for anyone who opposes its litigious stance. These same individuals need to ask themselves if someone can still be a loyal American while opposing the war in Iraq (or the administration's policies on a whole range of subjects). Obviously, loyalty and dissent are not mutually exclusive.


DavidH said...

Dean Munday, let me start by saying that I don't question your dissenting voice. Dissent is usually good, and overall you raise important points that (at the very least) deserve serious discussion and response and unfortunately don't generally seem to be getting them.

I trust you'll forgive me though if I pick at a couple, related factual issues, which I'm attuned to merely because I'm a lawyer and have been following the Virginia litigation very closely.

Unfortunately, "lay" reporting on legal matters often gets some things wrong, and your post emphasizes one of them. You say first that "the Diocese of Virginia had negotiated and drawn up settlements with departing parishes in northern Virginia." You use this point to then argue that the PB "made ... the Diocese of Virginia renege on those negotiations."

That is incorrect. Not even BabyBlue claims actual settlements (or "verbal agreements" as you later quote Conger, who got it wrong) in Virginia. In fact, one of BB's usual laments is that negotiations were cut off even before they began. And the evidence (PB or otherwise) certainly didn't show that there were any actual agreements. (Trial transcripts, reams of briefing discussing the evidence, and even some parts of the PB's testimony are online.)

The most that there was prior to 815's involvement was a Diocese committee report. That report set out a procedure that wasn't fully followed by the departing congregations and that ended only in suggesting negotiations, with further approvals required by the Diocese before there could be any actual settlement. And, in a hint of where settlements might have gone, the report got a decidedly cold welcome from the Diocese Standing Committee and Executive Board.

Later you guess that The Falls Church "would have settled." I don't know for certain -- the nature of "would have" things is that they're a guess. But out of the 9 congregations that left with property (the 2 without land actually did settle later during litigation), I'd rate The Falls Church as one of the ones least likely to settle.

You also guess that The Falls Church Episcopal "can't use" the property that the CANA folks have. Again, a guess. In a couple years, perhaps we'll see.

Robert S. Munday said...

David H, Thank you for this information. My assertion about settlements was based on a statement that one of the departing rectors made in my hearing in 2007, "the documents were all drawn up, ready to be signed."

My assertion that Bishop Lee intended to settle with the departing parishes is based on this quotation from the Washington Times article, preserved by Stand Firm: "According to prior testimony, Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee was ready to accept buyouts from the 11 departing churches, several of which sat on historic pieces of property in Fairfax and Falls Church. That changed after he met with the new presiding bishop soon after her Nov. 4, 2006, installation."

Since the "prior testimony" referred to in the report was testimony given in court, under oath, I assume it is reliable.

The idea that there was a settlement protocol which could have been utilized is supported by the following quote from Bishop John Guernsey, whose congregation apparently reached an agreement and departed without a lawsuit:
"Well, we [All Saints Church, Woodbridge, Virginia] had been trying to hang in there with the Communion processes of responding to the Episcopal Church's unprecedented actions in 2003 to depart from the teaching of the Anglican Communion, and it became clear to us that the Episcopal Church was clear in its path, and it was as a result of an extended period of prayer and negotiations with our diocese to come up with an amicable plan and process of separation, and that came to be concluded in 2006, and we made the move at that time."

My assertion that the Falls Church would have settled is based on this protocol for departing parishes, signed by the rector and two other members of the Falls Church:

But even if one sets aside the claim that there were settlement agreements, the preponderance of evidence indicates that the Bishop of Virginia had pursued a course intended to lead to settlements, which he then reversed at the insistence of the Presiding Bishop.

And my overarching concern remains: that litigation should be the last resort (after attempts at negotiations have failed) rather than the first resort, which appears to be the present course being followed by the PB--a course which (1) is very costly, (2) is a clear violation of 1 Cor. 6, and (3) creates needless acrimony between Christians.