Church property: let go with love

By George Clifford

In private conversations, Episcopal Church (TEC) leaders from various dioceses, both lay and clerical, tell me that two important reasons for lawsuits to retain title to the property of parishes and dioceses that wish to disaffiliate with TEC are fairness to the remnant that remains faithful to TEC and to deter other parishes from leaving. At first blush, those rationales may appear to justify TEC filing the lawsuits. However, neither rationale withstands careful scrutiny from a Christian perspective.

Quite simply, Christianity is about grace and love. For we who seek to follow Jesus, grace should take precedence over law. TEC operates through democratic processes. When a majority of a parish (or a diocese) votes to leave TEC, those who leave should recognize that the property belongs to TEC and, if they wish to have the property, offer to purchase it at fair market value. However, if those who wish to leave insist on keeping the property, grace demands that we accept that selfish decision rather than holding to the letter of the law. Although TEC may likely prevail in the courts, it will have further alienated the disaffected, turned its focus away from the gospel imperative, and wasted precious resources on an issue that is ultimately of little importance for God’s business.

This choice may seem unfair to the minority who wish to remain with TEC but is gracious towards the larger number that decided to leave as well as to those whom God’s love will touch because of TEC’s focus and resources invested in mission rather than legal actions. For example, the Diocese of Virginia has probably expended more than $1 million in lawsuits to retain the property of a number of parishes that recently voted to leave. The Diocese recently obtained a $2 million line of credit to further finance those suits. Although $30 million to $40 million of property is at stake, for those $3 million, and the countless hours of time the suits will require from bishops, priests, and laity, the Diocese of Virginia could fund several new missions to meet the needs of those who wish to remain and others. Successfully retaining large buildings for small congregations by winning the suits will burden those congregations with excessive overhead and probably instill a maintenance rather than missionary orientation.

Love between consenting adults does not seek to manipulate by using incentives or disincentives. Love wants what is best for the other, a choice that only the other can make. In human relationships, the unrequited lover who genuinely loves will sadly but freely permit his/her beloved to choose another. The same standard should apply to the community of God’s people known as TEC.

Individuals who vote to separate from TEC are consenting adults. By so voting, they spurn TEC’s love for them. TEC may not have always communicated its love for those who vote to separate with sufficient ardor, frequency, or effectiveness. TEC may have failed to provide those who vote to separate with a leader or leaders committed to TEC’s vision of God’s inclusive love. Representatives from other Churches in the Anglican Communion may have mischaracterized recent events within TEC or the Communion, seeking to fragment TEC. These representatives may have funded or employed manipulative tactics to encourage votes for disaffiliation. None of that diminishes the demand of our Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

Individuals, parishes, and dioceses that choose to leave TEC further fracture the Church’s already badly broken unity. Departures spiritually weaken TEC, leaving us bereft of the unique gifts and contributions that those who depart bring to the Church. After all, people, not physical plants or financial funds, are the Church’s most important resource.

Nevertheless, departures are not without precedent. The most notable Anglican precedent was the excommunication of the Church of England by the Church of Rome. Although this departure was not voluntary, the English knew that failing to alter their course would most likely force the Pope to act. King Henry seized excommunication as an opportunity to expropriate church property, disestablish monasteries, etc. Reform-minded clergy similarly saw a window of opportunity to make what they perceived as badly needed changes to liturgy and canon law. Following the American Revolution, Anglicans in the United States had to choose between swearing allegiance to the British crown and becoming U.S. citizens. If some had not chosen the latter course, TEC would probably not exist. Those who chose to depart from the Church of England took title to the Church’s property in the U.S. without paying compensation to the Church of England.

Anglicans from other provinces who have crossed jurisdictional lines to organize missions, receive parishes, or ordain clergy in the United States have certainly violated existing Anglican Communion structure and protocols. As much as I find such activities reprehensible, those activities do not result in those provinces or individuals losing their identity as members of the Anglican Communion. Likewise, those who leave TEC when accepted by a non-TEC diocese or another province do not cease to be either Christian or members of the Anglican Communion.

Establishing procedures for an orderly transfer of property and funds when a TEC parish or diocese votes to affiliate with another constituent member of the Anglican Communion and refuses to honor TEC’s right to the property will represent a costly gift of love. That gracious gift, whether it costs tens of thousands of tens of millions of dollars, honors and respects the dignity of those who have chosen to depart. That gift also emulates God’s great gift of love in Jesus, a gift given in the full knowledge that it would be costly.

Sometimes, an unrequited lover’s beloved will desire, in retrospect, the gift of love that he or she earlier spurned. If that should happen among those who have chosen to depart from TEC, or who may do so in the future, then TEC’s gracious love in allowing them to go may inspire hope of a warm homecoming à la the parable of the prodigal son. To let go reluctantly and unwillingly of the beloved who spurns our love unintentionally sends the opposite message. God calls us to value persons, not property. Those leaving TEC should go with God’s blessing and ours, albeit a blessing given with tears of sadness. We who remain must remain faithful to our calling and understanding of God’s Word, treating all persons – members of TEC and others – with the dignity and respect due a child of God.

The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, with tours at sea, with the Marine Corps, on the staff of the Chief of Chaplains, on exchange with the Royal Navy in London, as the senior Protestant chaplain at the Naval Academy, and as the senior chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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