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Editor: The Rev. Diane Shepard



A Pittsburgh Episcopal Voice

Ownership of parish property is one of the most contentious issues within The Episcopal Church today. It is clearly the intention of the church that property be held in trust by each diocese for The Episcopal Church. Moreover, church leaders have consistently asserted that only individuals, not parishes—and certainly not dioceses—can leave the church. Specifically, a parish may not leave the church as an entity, and its members cannot leave the church with the real estate, furnishings, prayer books, and accounts. In a few cases, dioceses and departing congregations have negotiated the terms of their departure. This is not the place to enumerate the results of such negotiations, but, it is fair to say that congregations departing with their property have had to pay for it. Those congregations that have left The Episcopal Church and attempted to take parish property with them have generally been sued by their diocese. The record of such suits suggests that congregations attempting to leave with their property should expect to spend a good deal of money on legal costs and, in the end, lose their case.

The documents listed below deal with the property issue generally, or with particular cases, including the lawsuit filed by Calvary Episcopal Church against Bishop Robert Duncan and other diocesan leaders.

Note: Recently added items are marked “New.” Use “Next” and “Previous” links to move easily between entries. To view a document, click on “View.”

TITLE St. James Church, Elmhurst, against Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, etc.
AUTHOR Supreme Court: Queens (N.Y.) County
DATE 3/12/2008
ADDED 3/31/2008
TYPE Court decision
DESCRIPTION Trial court decision instructing breakaway congregation of St. James’ to turn over assets and control of the parish to the bishop’s appointed priest-in-charge.
COMMENT St. James’, Elmhurst (Queens), is a parish dating to colonial times that joined The Episcopal Church in 1793. The congregation voted in 2005 to leave The Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Church in America. The court, finding The Episcopal Church to be a hierarchical one that, through the Dennis canon, has a trust interest in parish assets, ordered that property be returned to the diocese. The decision could be appealed. The ENS story on the court decision can be found here.
TITLE On Parish Property
AUTHOR The Very Rev. George Werner
DATE 9/17/2007
ADDED 9/17/2007
TYPE Post to e-mail list
FORMAT Web page
DESCRIPTION Dean Werner explains the relationship of a priest and a parish as it was taught to him.
COMMENT This brief essay was sent to the House of Bishops and Deputies E-mail List. (Minor errors have been corrected in this version of a letter not original intended for publication.) Werner emphasizes the nature of a priest’s stewardship of a parish, a humble perspective we have seen little of recently.
TITLE The Mercy of Property ... is strained
AUTHOR Tobias Haller BSG
DATE 6/27/2007
ADDED 8/26/2007
TYPE Blog post
FORMAT Web page
DESCRIPTION This essay explains why parish property does not actually belong to parishioners
COMMENT This essay, in part a reflection on the Los Angeles property cases (see decision here), echoes many of the ideas in “Property Constraints” (below).
TITLE Another letter from Bishop Howe: No civil war in the diocese, please
AUTHOR Bishop John Howe (reported by “Saint Pat”)
DATE 7/25/2007
ADDED 8/28/2007
TYPE Blog post
FORMAT Web page
DESCRIPTION Central Florida blogger “Saint Pat” reports a letter from the bishop of her diocese John Howe.
COMMENT The letter in question is from the Bishop of Central Florida to members of the Diocesan Board and Standing Committee. The rather complicated context of this letter can largely be inferred from the content. Obviously, some diocesan leaders would like to remove the diocese and its property from The Episcopal Church. (Resolution NAC023, reported here, seems to have had a part in raising the issues addressed in the letter.) Howe, a conservative and acknowledged “Windsor Bishop,” nonetheless argues that he is bound by rules he must uphold. He argues that, if one wishes to leave The Episcopal Church, it must be done empty-handed. He does not rule out his own departure at some future time, but he says that he would simply resign and retire.. “There is no way I can imagine that I would or could attempt to remove the Diocese from The Episcopal Church.”
TITLE In re: Episcopal Church Cases
AUTHOR Justice David Sills
DATE 6/25/2007
ADDED 8/24/2007
TYPE California Fourth Appellate District Opinion
FORMAT Microsoft Word
DESCRIPTION Decision on appeal by the Diocese of Los Angeles to lower-court rulings in favor of breakaway parishes to retain their property.
COMMENT Although church property cases occasionally find their way to the Federal courts, most decisions are made at the state level. Nearly everywhere, the law favors The Episcopal Church in disputes with dissent congregations over property. ( See “In re: Church of St. James the Less,” a Pennsylvania decision, below.) California has tended to be the exception to this rule, and a number of cases in recent years have favored breakaway congregations from the Episcopal and other churches. The decision here involves several cases appealed by the Diocese of Los Angeles. The long (77-page) decision is included here not only because it reversed the lower-court decisions, but because the judge reviewed the history of how the legal system has tried to deal with such disputes, from the beginning of the Republic. As such, it makes very interesting reading, providing insight into church-property cases wherever argued.


TITLE Calvary Suit Status
AUTHOR Kenneth Stiles
DATE Appeared in the June 2007 issue of PEPtalk, the Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh newsletter. The entire issue can be read here.
ADDED 8/23/2007
TYPE Story
FORMAT Web page
DESCRIPTION The author provides background and information about the current state of the Calvary Church lawsuit.
COMMENT By no means is this a history of the Calvary Lawsuit, but it does explain what the suit is about and chronicles recent activity related to it.


TITLE Connecting the Dots
AUTHOR House of Bishops Task Force on Property Disputes
DATE 4/9/2007
ADDED 8/24/2007
TYPE Report
DESCRIPTION This report to the House of Bishops intends to demonstrate: “TEC is dealing with a well-thought-out, well-organized, and well-funded strategy designed to enable and justify the removal of assets from use for the Church’s mission and ministry in the world.”
COMMENT This so-called “Sauls Report” relies, in part, on documents surrendered by the defendants in the discovery phase of the Calvary lawsuit. The report and its appendices are collected together in a single file unavailable elsewhere on the Web. This version includes bookmarks and live links between the body of the report and its appendices. The report, with appendices, is 41-pages long.


TITLE Calvary Files Petition in Court of Common Pleas
AUTHOR Calvary Church
DATE 12/20/2006
ADDED 8/23/2007
TYPE Story
FORMAT Web page
DESCRIPTION This story describes Calvary Church’s return to court to request enforcement of the agreement of 10/14/2005 (available here).
COMMENT According to the story, Calvary claimed that the diocese had effectively removed property from The Episcopal Church, in violation of the agreement reached more than a year before. This issue is still unresolved.
TITLE In re: Church of St. James the Less
AUTHOR Justice Russell Nigro
DATE 12/29/2005
ADDED 8/24/2007
TYPE Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision
DESCRIPTION Decision in the appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by St. James the Less.
COMMENT St. James the Less tried to remove itself and its property from The Episcopal Church. The Diocese of Pennsylvania sued and won. The appeal by St. James the Less was unsuccessful. There is a cautionary lesson here for congregations that might follow the lead of St. James the Less.
TITLE Stipulation by Counsel
AUTHOR Attorneys in Calvary Episcopal Church, et al. vs. Duncan, et al.
DATE 10/14/2005
ADDED 10/11/2007
TYPE Court filing
DESCRIPTION “Settlement” resulting from lawsuit brought by Calvary Church against Bishop Duncan and other diocesan leaders. See all public documents related to the case below.
COMMENT Two years after Calvary Church sued Bishop Duncan and other diocesan leaders on behalf of the diocese (i.e., Calvary Church claimed to be acting in the interest of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh), this settlement was reached and presented to the court. The lawsuit was initiated because of concern that diocesan leaders would not protect property it held in trust for The Episcopal Church. Among other things, this agreement appears to acknowledge the trust exercised by “the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.” It also outlines a procedure intended to prevent congregations leaving The Episcopal Church from being given a “sweetheart” deals on parish property from a sympathetic diocese. The procedure becomes especially interesting now, in that Bishop Duncan has been suggesting that the diocese can separate itself from The Episcopal Church and require parishes to follow the agreed-upon procedure in order to remain in The Episcopal Church. It is difficult, however, to understand how the bishop could claim to have left The Episcopal Church yet still claim jurisdiction, administrative or otherwise, over “the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.” (This document is available elsewhere. The version here, however, is searchable, although perhaps not perfectly.)

TITLE Property Constraints
AUTHOR Lionel Deimel
DATE Appeared in the 9/5/2004 issue of The Living Church
ADDED 8/23/2007
TYPE Essay
FORMAT Web page
DESCRIPTION An exploration of the “legal, ethical, and practical arguments” around departing church members attempting to take church property with them.
COMMENT The essay first appeared as a Reader’s Viewpoint column in The Living Church. The arguments are still relevant three years later, though it should be noted that any attempt to liquidate the assets of a parish and divide it among members may run afoul of the IRS.


TITLE Calvary Episcopal Church, et al. vs. Duncan, et al.
AUTHOR Allegheny County Prothonotary
DATE 10/24/2003 –
ADDED 8/23/2007
TYPE Listing of public documents related to Calvary lawsuit
FORMAT Web page
DESCRIPTION Public documents and information related to the lawsuit are available here
COMMENT The parties agreed not to make certain documents public. Some of the documents once posted here are no longer available from the Prothonotary site.

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