The Episcopal Church – A House Divided
The Fairfax Circuit Court has ruled in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia versus a more traditional breakaway group over church properties. Since voting to split from the Episcopal Church, USA (ECUSA) in 2006, the more traditional branch of parishioners has aligned itself with the newly designated Council of Anglicans in North America (CANA). In seven Virginian dioceses, CANA retained church property while Episcopalians who chose not to defect had to seek lodgings elsewhere. As a result of this week’s ruling, however, the roles are reversed. CANA will now have to vacate all seven diocesan premises.
As reported on the Falls Church website:
The court ruled that the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia have “a contractual and proprietary interest” in each of the properties subject to the litigation. The court ordered that all property subject to its ruling be turned over to the Diocese.
“We hope that this ruling will lead to our congregations returning to worship in their church homes in the near future, while finding a way to support the CANA congregations as they plan their transition,” said Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the Diocese and chief of staff.
The split is the byproduct of a seemingly disconnected event: the confirmation of the first openly gay bishop, Rev. Gene Robinson, from New Hampshire in 2003. Intended as an inclusive move to better reflect contemporary norms, a majority of Episcopalians in Virginia viewed it as a break from church doctrine and broke off from ECUSA and aligned with CANA.
Ironically, while ECUSA can now reclaim its lost properties, their membership is in steep decline. The traditional CANA has higher attendance and, in some instances, even offered to buy the church property in lieu of litigation. But all offers were rejected. This raises the possibility of a Pyrrhic victory for ECUSA. What if they reopen the churches and find the pews empty? What if they are unable to raise the necessary donations to keep the doors open? In a case in New York, a traditional Anglican congregation was evicted by the Episcopal Church, only to have the property sold off and the church turned into a mosque.
The ordination of women, actively gay bishops, and same-sex marriage has increasingly created legal disputes among Christian parishes across the nation. Some view them as evolutions in the faith, others as untenable innovations. Either way, they are largely secular concerns that have been imported into the pews. But they represent a legal quandary over theological restrictions versus civil rights. While courts may be able to settle property disputes, they are hard-pressed to resolve theological feuds. In such an environment, misunderstandings and hurt feelings are bound to take root. This appears to be by design. The importation of secular matters that conflict with church teachings invariably force congregates to take sides. The result are parallel churches – separate but equal. Abraham Lincoln, however, noted that “a house divided against itself cannot stand”. Obviously, Lincoln was referring to our nation’s Civil War, but the analogy to religious schism is apt since the quote is derived from Mathew 12:25.
“And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand”.
Divide and conquer is rife in church parishes, pitting congregate against congregate and church against state. This is lamentable since the Episcopal Church in America has a long, storied history in our nation, going all the way back to the Declaration of Independence when three-quarters of the signers, including Thomas Jefferson, were members. But this is by no means limited to the Episcopalians. Presbyterian, Catholic and Lutheran denominations are likewise embroiled in legal issues regarding property, schools and hospitals. Much of this is derived from legislation that expands requirements for sex education, contraception and access to abortion for lay employees or students who are not affiliated with the churches. The objective of such legislation is to nibble at the edges and then burrow in, compelling churches to enact secular policies – such as health insurance coverage for abortion – which it deems immoral. (In fact, the Supreme Court just handed down a decision in favor of the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church & School regarding the church’s right to hire or fire “commissioned ministers” on its teaching staff. The suit filed by Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was represented by the Obama Department of Justice. See the court’s ruling here.)
Unfortunately, the losers in these lawsuits and legal wranglings are the parishioners themselves. It plants a seed of doubt about who’s sitting next to whom in the pews. Is he or she for or against such-and-such issue? The mind drifts away from the liturgical to the legalese, away from prayer and the altar and more toward the courts. It detracts from the shared common purpose of all parishioners – that of faith. Gorgeous Episcopal churches dot the countryside and cities of where I live inVirginia. It’s painful to think of any of them being shuttered. Episcopalians also have one of the most beautiful of all service books – the Book of Common Prayer. Established by Thomas Cranmer in 1549 during the English Reformation, it is a wonder of the English language, containing litanies, prayers, psalms and readings for daily church services. It would be a pity if the liturgical splendor within were to be overshadowed by theological disputes being played out in the courts.