A battle brews over theology - and property

Angry Episcopalians seek a separation

January 18, 2004|By Tim Jones | Tim Jones,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

PAWLEYS ISLAND, S.C. - The metal sign at the intersection of Waverly and Kings River directs visitors down a tree-lined road with the greeting "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You."

That sign will soon change as parishioners at All Saints Church Waccamaw complete a messy divorce from the 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church USA by removing the word "Episcopal."

The revolt over the consecration of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, is playing out in a church whose origins predate the Declaration of Independence. The secession by All Saints, one of the largest Episcopal churches in South Carolina with 1,000 members, was approved overwhelmingly by congregants Jan. 8.

But All Saints' decision to split is more complicated than a momentary flash of anger over an unpopular decision.

While the faithful argue the spiritual concerns about the direction of the Episcopal Church USA, a South Carolina court is weighing the financial control of the All Saints Church campus. The financial implications of the divorce are significant because the All Saints property is valued at nearly $10 million.

"This is business. I hate to say it because I'm a born-again Christian, but this boils down, unfortunately, to property and endowments," Ross Lindsay, the All Saints chancellor, or attorney, said of the court fight and its national implications.

"Underneath the gay bishop is millions of dollars in endowments and property," he said. "Nobody wants to talk about that."

The fight over the property began in 2000 when the national church and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina tried to lay claim to the property. All Saints sued to block the move.

Eugene Zeigler, the attorney for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, said the fight is not about money but about holding the church together.

"We are in a stronger position to reform if we stick together," Zeigler said. "If they peel off like Pawleys Island, we won't get anywhere."

This month, the Episcopal bishop in Lexington, Ky., took control of St. John's Episcopal Church, which opposed Robinson's ordination. The bishop downgraded the parish to a mission, clearing the way for the takeover. The Kentucky diocese feared that the parish's governing board would leave the Episcopal Church USA and take with it property and bank accounts worth about $1.9 million.

In Episcopal churches around the country, factions in individual congregations have broken away in protest of Robinson's consecration.

A new and unaffiliated congregation of mostly conservative Episcopalians is scheduled to begin meeting today in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Thousands of Episcopalians, many of whom have opposed the ordination of women, prayer book revisions and, most recently, the Robinson consecration, are scheduled to meet this week in Plano, Texas, to discuss their future in the church. Known as the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes, the group is pushing to align itself with Anglican churches outside the United States that oppose the Robinson consecration.

A group of about 2,600 met last weekend in suburban Washington to vent about Robinson and discuss courses of action.

The Pawleys Island church's action is an extreme example of discontent but one that had been building for years, said Russell Campbell, a member of the church vestry, its governing board.

Campbell said All Saints started challenging what it perceived to be inappropriate revisions in Scriptural teachings, "heretical statements" by some bishops and "political correctness" seven years ago.

The result was the creation of the Anglican Mission in America, a splinter group within the worldwide Anglican community of 77 million members. All Saints wants to be governed by an archbishop from a different province, possibly the African nation of Rwanda, so as "not to remain part of an apostate national church," Campbell said.

"Isn't it ironic that this area, which grew rich because of the work of slaves, now seeks comfort from an African province? Interesting," Campbell said.

Guided by a 1979 Supreme Court decision, courts around the nation have ruled that congregations splitting from their churches forfeit their rights to property. An Episcopal law known as the Dennis Canon places every parish's property - land, buildings and endowments - under the control of its diocese and the national church.

A South Carolina circuit court, however, has ruled that the charitable trust established in 1745 deeding the property for religious purposes does not allow the diocese or the national church to lay claim to the property, regardless of the Dennis Canon. The decision has been appealed to a state appeals court panel.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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