Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Going to Court

April 21, 2010

A recent post inspired an interesting response from someone who did not sign their name. The writer wanted to suggest that ‘squabbling over property’ was in some respects a consequence of The Episcopal Church being unwilling to embrace a clear biblical faith. I’ve not seen the article but would always argue that we present a clear biblical faith. What we argue about is what aspects of the various times and cultures reflected in scripture are essential and what are things that ought to change in the name of being faithful.

One of the most helpful things I have read on this recently is in David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence in which he uses Wisdom Literature as a lens for addressing ‘what is’ without needing to embrace the elements of the social order underlying the approach.

While there is a legitimate debate to be had over biblical interpretation (i.e. is there something essential about male/female complementarity and difference or is the essential matter the negotiation of complementarity and difference between any human beings?) Current complaints about whether the Church is ‘biblical’ amounts to little more than sloganeering without acknowledging the conversation.

Going to court is what Christians or anyone else does when someone else is behaving badly and not responding to reason. What TEC is experiencing is the classic reality that when we point out someone else’s bad behavior, those who do not appreciate it will try and make us the issue. The property issue is not ‘biblical’. It is about fiduciary trust, canons and the like in the Episcopal Church. Most courts seem to understand that so far.

Virginia is a little different for a number of reasons. Under state law, individual congregations have trustees of the property. When I was serving in the Diocese of Virginia it was made clear to me and I taught that the property was held in trust for the Episcopal Church. Accounts of recent arguments before the Virginia Supreme Court seem to suggest that perhaps the Diocese needed to take some legal action to make that explicit. Who knows how that will play out? In any event, those congregations who are seeking to depart with property invariably have a) persuaded themselves that they are justified in doing so on some basis like “The Episcopal Church is not Biblical”, and b) have clergy who are being clever but choosing to ignore what they have been taught in polity classes in ay and every Episcopal Seminary since the early 1980s at least. Without in any way minimizing the real sense of loss felt by those whose conscience will not let them stay in a church in which norms are shifting, and without suggesting that there are no other ways to negotiate this problem through negotiation, sale of property and the like in some situations, going to court is an appropriate response to the belief that departing congregations are engaged in theft. The courts will have to sort out whether that belief is justified or not under the law.

1 comment:

Geoffrey Hoare said...

I received a comment signed with a blog name. If you would like to resubmit with a signed comment we will happily post it.

You are right that I was clearly misinformed about Virginia property law. I do not remember whether I was told the role of a trustee was 5to hold the property in trust for the Dioceses by one of them (as I suspect), heard it at a diocesan day of orientation (which I think unlikely) or made the assumption myself based on Episcopal Polity (which is possible). What I do know is that I was well informed about Episcopal polity as are (or should be) all those who submit to the "doctrine, discipline and worhsip of the Episcopal Church under the atuthority of teh diocesan bishop who holds your letter dimissory. If I was no longer able to do that I would need to resign my orders.