The Two-Edged Sword of Central Property Ownership of Churches

Tomorrow the California Supreme Court will render its decision on a series of cases regarding the secession of several parishes from TEC.  Needless to say, it’s a nail-biter for everyone.

Anglican Cumudgeon has been covering this saga in detail (he doesn’t do it any other way) but what interested me was a comment from the Anglican blogger Baby Blue, who has had front row seats to the so-far successful secession of parishes in Virginia:

The other problem that the remaining parishes in TEC have if this ruling goes in favor of the Diocese is that no lay person in their right mind is going to invest in a parish that the laity have no control over. If the bishop “owns” the church, what’s the sense in investing in the property? Tell the bishop to take care of it, and when children get hit by cars in the parking lot on Sunday morning, let the bishop get sued instead.

There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with owning property and these bishops – thinking it’s a political action – have no idea what a hornets nest they are stirring up.

So, if the People lose this ruling, the TEC bishops have far more of a problem on their hands than parishes departing over heretical doctrine. Send all the bills to the bishop – the properties are now his problem.

“Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.”

She’s hit on something that we in the Church of God need to remember: central ownership of property is a two-edged sword for the central church.

To start with, in a broad sense (and this is not a formal legal opinion in any sense of the word) any central church is a final destination for the liabilities of its parishes/local churches when the property is held centrally.  Those liabilities include tort/personal injury liabilities such as Baby Blue mentions, but they also include any indebtedness that the church holds.  In most cases those liabilities are dispensed with at the local level, but sometimes they move “up the line.”

Beyond that, she’s also right in saying that those who give and are conscious of a lack of control at the local level will reduce their giving accordingly. The best way to avoid that problem is to have healthy “give and take” between the denomination and its local churches.  But that’s what’s broken down in TEC, spectacularly so.

The wise central church has to take a “know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em” mentality.  For example, it may be expedient for a large local church with a high debt load and insufficient cash flow to be “cut loose” from the central church.  Unfortunately since KJS has become the “Great Helmsperson” of TEC (Chairman Mao enthusiasts will pick up on the allusion) she and her chancellor David Booth Beers have adopted a scorched earth policy regarding property, dumping settlement arrangements such as Virginia Bishop Lee worked out and expending church resources on keeping every piece of property they think is legally theirs.

Irrespective of how this decision comes out, TEC’s demographics fortell of a world with empty parishes and reduced income.  Under those circumstances, they’ll wish they had the money they wasted on litigation.  In their case, the dispute was driven by doctrinal and moral differences, which are more substantial than many of the things we see ignite conflagrations in churches.

Growing up in the Episcopal Church, we used to pray the following every Morning Prayer:

More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.

Pentecostals and other Evangelicals wince over “vain repetition,” but in this case it’s worthwhile.  Our central system has put us together; we need to stick together in mutual love and respect accordingly.

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