July 28, 2012
House of Bishops Unanimously Affirms Authority of the National Church
Protest by Buchanan and Ohl leads to collapse of legal attack on the hierarchical nature of the Episcopal Church, and sends a not-so-subtle message of intolerance for bishops who act contrary to their vows of loyalty
INDIANAPOLIS -- In case you missed it, the blessing of same-gender unions was not the big story of the General Convention from the standpoint of the Diocese of South Carolina.
Yes, the Diocese and its dwindling corps of allies generated predictable theater around their opposition to the issue. There was generous coverage online and in the local media that managed to charge up the faithful. There was the usual rhetoric to confuse the “blessing” of same-gender unions with the “sacrament” of marriage, and the same melodrama around an announcement by our Bishop that he would not authorize such blessings in our diocese.
This is not to disparage the belief of many that these blessings are beyond that which is allowable within the Christian family. The Bishop is well within his authority to affect such a policy, which most surely is reflective of a majority of communicants in the Diocese.
However, this is all a fig leaf disguising a much larger issue. That issue is one of authority, discipline, and order within the Episcopal Church hierarchy and whether a diocesan bishop has the sole authority to give away resources, financial assets, and property of the Episcopal Church within his or her diocese.
It's part of a broader effort by increasingly isolated, but well-financed dissident groups in the Episcopal Church (as well as of other churches similarly structured) to undermine the authority of its democratically-elected leadership, which they view as un-Christian and too liberal.
However, after a string of stinging losses in the nation's courts, they now face a Church far less patient and far more united around its leadership structure than ever before.
Provisional Bishops Buchanan and Ohl complain to House of Bishops about nine colleagues supporting breakaway groups.
The most recent engagement over the issue emerged during the meeting of the House of Bishops at the General Convention when Bishops John Buchanan, currently the provisional Bishop of Quincy (Illinois) and Wallis Ohl, the provincial bishop of Fort Worth, complained that nine current and former bishops had joined with rebellious groups within their dioceses to undermine their authority as bishops appointed by the Church.
Bishop Lawrence was not among the nine, but former SC Bishop Edward Salmon was.
In an open letter to their fellow bishops, Buchanan and Ohl complained that legal briefs recently filed by these fellow bishops in appeals courts in Illinois and Texas had given "aid and comfort to breakaway factions who would take title and control of substantially all of the real and personal property of this Church and cripple its mission and ministry."
The groups are appealing lower court decisions that found, in essence, that the owner of Episcopal Church property, resources, and financial assets in those dioceses is … the Episcopal Church. read the letter
Ohl and Buchanan were appointed to their provisional positions by the Presiding Bishop.
Nine bishops signed legal briefs challenging the authority of the governing structures of the Church.
In their legal briefs, the nine bishops did not endorse the rebellious actions of the former Church leaders in those two dioceses, but instead exploited the opportunity to promote a highly imaginative attack on the central premise of lower court rulings suggesting that the General Convention and House of Bishops are not necessarily more significant authorities than individual bishops in their own dioceses.
The Episcopal Church is “hierarchical”, they agreed, but the “hierarchy” of the Church is more or less dispersed and residing with dioceses and their bishops.
The argument then would have significant implications in the Diocese of South Carolina where the Diocese has severed ties with the Episcopal Church, and allowed its bishop to give away the Church’s legal interests in millions of dollars in parish properties. SC Bishop Mark Lawrence claims the Diocese is “sovereign” and that the Episcopal Church has no claim on Church property and resources within its borders.
House of Bishops, including critics of TEC, affirm "hierarchical" nature of TEC governance.
The legal briefs signed by the nine bishops and subsequent complaints filed by Buchanan and Ohl were the subject of intense closed-door conversation in the House of Bishops in early July. Sentiment was clearly against the nine bishops, as Church leaders worked to find common ground.
Eventually the Houses of Bishops passed a resolution, affirming its commitment to the provisional leaders of all former breakaway dioceses and commending “their unflagging efforts to continue to witness to God's mission as The Episcopal Church.”
The resolution was adopted unanimously on a roll call voice vote on July 8. This is what it said:
Resolved, That Episcopalians in the Dioceses of Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Quincy and San Joaquin--lay and clergy--be commended for their unflagging efforts to continue to witness to God's mission as The Episcopal Church during recent difficult times as they reorganize their continuing dioceses in that same spirit; and be it further
Resolved, That the leadership in each of those four continuing dioceses be commended for their similar efforts, including in particular the Rt. Rev. C. Wallis Ohl, Provisional Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth; the Rt. Rev. Kenneth L. Price, Assisting Bishop of the Diocese of Pittsburgh; the Rt. Rev. John C. Buchanan, Provisional Bishop of the Diocese of Quincy; and the Rt. Rev. Chester L. Talton, Provisional Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin, and especially the strong lay leadership of each diocese.
The resolution was clearly a victory for the elected leadership of the Church in that it recognized the traditional leadership hierarchy of the Episcopal Church. In the eyes of their fellow bishops, Buchanan, Ohl, and other provisional bishops appointed by the Presiding Bishop are the duly authorized leaders of the Episcopal Church in the dioceses in which they serve.
Looking past the generalities, there is a message that the House of Bishops is not going to tolerate bishops who use their offices to deny or circumvent the authority of the leaders of the Church. While the bishops of the Church do exercise unique authority in their dioceses, there should be no mistaking that such authority comes from the national Church.
Mysterious Anglican Communion Institute seems to be behind legal meddling.
This legal theory put forward in the appellate briefs in Illinois and Texas appears to have been orchestrated by an erstwhile think tank called the Anglican Communion Institute. The ACI is a platform for critics of the Episcopal Church, and a place for posting of legal theories and other attacks on its leadership. It is not clear where its money comes from.
Bishop Salmon seems to have significant involvement with the group, which he once dismissed as “just a guy with a computer.”
For some time now, it has become increasingly clear that the US Supreme Court is not particularly disposed to affirm challenges to the authority of “hierarchical” denominations like the Episcopal Church.
In a little noticed decision earlier this year, the Court unanimously upheld the right of hierarchical churches to manage their internal affairs, and even suggested that just calling your parish Episcopal, Lutheran, or Presbyterian meant that you acceded to the governing structure of that denomination
The Institute seems to be a part of a larger effort to inject various crackpot theories about the origins and governance of the Episcopal Church into legal cases that almost surely will end up before the US Supreme Court. Church critics took a shot similar to those in Illinois and Texas earlier this year when the Supreme Court of Georgia upheld lower court rulings that overwhelmingly favored the Diocese of Georgia in its attempts to rid Christ Church in Savannah of rebels who had aligned themselves with the Anglican Province of Uganda.
The Court ruled 5-1, against the claims of the Ugandans. However, an ultraconservative lower court judge filled in for one of the justices, and authored a lengthy and blistering dissent.
March 25, 2012
Backed by Uganda, Breakaway Group at Savannah's Christ Episcopal Church wants US Supreme Court to Reverse String of Legal Defeats & Give them Parish's Property
Connecticut breakaway group joins to challenge the right of the Episcopal Church to own its own properties
Case could affect renegade actions of Bishop Lawrence to giveaway Church property through amendment of parish corporate documents and issuance of quitclaim deeds
SAVANNAH -- A breakaway group that claims to be the rightful owner of Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a succession of lower court rulings, including a 6-1 decision by the Georgia Supreme Court, to force the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia to hand over the keys to the so-called "Mother Church of Georgia".
After attempting to separate from the Episcopal Church nearly five years ago, the malcontents have lost a succession of court battles to legitimize its ownership claims.
The group has been assisted in a number of ways by the anti-gay leaders of the Anglican Province of Uganda, to which it claims to belong. The government of Uganda is promoting legislation to allow the execution of gays, but Church leaders have suggested that life-imprisonment would be a more effective deterent. Ugandan strongman, President Yoweri Museveni, has reportedly provided funds to the Anglican province to fight homosexuality in the US.
Georgia's Supreme Court has ruled the $3 million church property in downtown Savannah belongs to the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Georgia. The dissidents argue that cases like All Saints, Waccamaw entitle them to lay claim to church property.
A spokesman for the Georgia Diocese said "In many ways the members of the church have gone on. Week by week, day by day, as they continue to worship, this isn't what's on their minds."
The dissidents attempted to leave the Church and make off with the parish's property in 2007 after the Episcopal Church ordained its first gay bishop.
Read about the related Connecticut case
February 22, 2012
Unanimous U.S. Supreme Court Decision Stuns Those Trying to Leave the Episcopal Church
Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School in Redmon, Michigan may not be on the radar screen of most Episcopalians, but a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of one of its former teachers is destined to be make the little church as famous as, well, All Saints’ on Pawley’s Island.
In a unanimous decision last month, the Court signed off on a wide-ranging decision broadly affirming the authority of “hierarchical” religious denominations, like the Episcopal Church, to manage their own affairs including its clergy, lay employees, and parish property.
The decision was yet one more warning to breakaway groups in these churches, like the Diocese of South Carolina, that they are wasting millions of dollars trying to leave their denominations with their property.
According to Associate Justice Samuel Alito,
“A religious body’s control over such “employees” is an essential component of its freedom to speak in its own voice, both to its own members and to the outside world. The connection between church governance and the free dissemination of religious doctrine has deep roots in our legal tradition:
“The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers with¬in the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if anyone aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed.” Watson v. Jones, 13 Wall. 679, 728–729 (1872).
The “ministerial” exception gives concrete protection to the free “expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine.” The Constitution leaves it to the collective conscience of each religious group to determine for itself who is qualified to serve as a teacher or messenger of its faith.