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Friday, August 22, 2008

Anglican Curmudgeon Tells the Virginia Story

Judge Randy Bellows has all but disposed of the issues remaining in the litigation between The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and eleven of the churches who voted to withdraw from the Diocese and form the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) in December 2005, and who also chose to affiliate with the Congregation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). (There are some twenty Virginia churches in all who have withdrawn from TEC and joined the ADV. When TEC and the Diocese chose to break off negotiations for an orderly withdrawal in January 2007 and to file separate lawsuits, they sued only those churches in the ADV who were CANA members, along with their rectors, vestry members, and the trustees who held the legal title to the churches' property.) To understand better the significance of Judge Bellows' latest rulings, a little background will be helpful.

In their complaints, TEC and the Diocese sought declarations that all the churches' property was held in trust for the Diocese and TEC (an attempt to enforce TEC's notorious Dennis Canon, first adopted at GC 1979), and could not be transferred to or used for the benefit of any congregation not affiliated with TEC. They further sought orders from the respective courts directing that the defendants transfer the churches' property and assets to the Bishop of Virginia, the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, that they vacate the churches in question and render an accounting to Bishop Lee for all of the parish moneys and property in their hands. TEC's complaint in addition asked for a preliminary injunction, pending trial of the action, to restrain the defendants from transferring away any of the churches' property.

Eight of the eleven CANA churches had property, some of which dated to the colonial era prior to the time when TEC's predecessor (PECUSA, or the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA) was founded in 1789, and which was held by individual trustees for their respective benefit, as specifically allowed by Virginia law. (The other three owned no real property.) Under a law unique to Virginia and first enacted in 1867, the eight churches had each filed petitions in December 2006 with their respective circuit courts, together with reports showing the majority votes that had been taken to withdraw, and requesting the courts to approve the reports. Under the terms of the statute, the courts' approval of the respective reports would be "conclusive as to the title and control of any property held" by the trustees for the benefit of the withdrawing congregations. TEC and the Diocese each intervened in these petition proceedings, to assert the same claims which they made in the separate lawsuits they filed a month or so later. In April 2007, all twenty actions (eight brought by the property-owning churches, eleven filed by the Diocese and the one filed by TEC) were ordered consolidated for trial under Judge Bellows.

On February 19, 2007, the Primates gathered at Dar-es-Salaam had issued their now-famous communique which, among other things, called upon the churches in the Anglican Communion to "suspend all actions at law" over church property disputes, pending the response requested of TEC's House of Bishops by September 30, 2007. The churches' attorneys promptly wrote the attorneys for TEC and the Diocese on February 22, and invited them to agree to a standstill in the litigation. (All documents not specifically linked to in this post may be downloaded or viewed---not necessarily by date, I regret to say---at this site. You have to click on the "News Release" tab on the right, then on the "Downloads Home" image, then finally on the "Legal Documents" folder, where they are all listed.) The reply to the request by TEC Chancellor David Booth Beers, dated February 26, 2007, is especially illuminating:

. . .We think that there can be no dispute that the Episcopal Church is an independent hierarchical religious denomination with subordinate entities through the United States and several other countries. . .

Notice the claim being made here, which should be news to most diocesan chancellors: The Episcopal Church is representing that it is hierarchical, "with subordinate entities through the United States . . ." (emphasis added). And just what might those subordinate entities be? Could Chancellor Beers possibly be referring to Dioceses such as the Diocese of Virginia, which came into existence well before PECUSA, and which was one of the dioceses which met in New York in 1789 and agreed to form PECUSA? Apparently so, and for now we shall only note this claim and return to it when we see how it fared before Judge Bellows.

Read it all here.

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