Episcopal Church’s rift has asset edge

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PITTSBURGH — The unmentioned word here at “Hope and a Future,” a gathering of 2,500 conservative Episcopalians, is “money.”

Now that some church split seems virtually assured over the 2003 consecration of openly homosexual New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the fight will be over how the Episcopal Church will divide its assets.

The Anglican Communion Network (ACN) has a team of six lawyers on call. The Episcopal House of Bishops, in turn, has a 10-member “property task force” in the works.

The ACN, a consortium of dioceses, bishops, laity and clergy representing more than 200,000 Episcopalians, organized this three-day conference at the David C. Lawrence Convention Center to rally the conservative troops.

“We’ve reversed Genesis,” Bishop Keith Ackerman of Quincy, Ill., told the crowd about the recent actions on moral issues by the Episcopal Church of the USA (ECUSA). “We’ve brought chaos out of order. We’ve created God in our own image.”

Two African archbishops counseled conservatives to hold firm in their battles with the ECUSA, which also threatens to split the worldwide Anglican Communion.

“We’re with you all the way,” Nigerian Archbishop Peter J. Akinola said in his speech. Archbishop Henry Orombi of Uganda also spoke yesterday.

Nineteen bishops from both U.S. sides met in July in Los Angeles to discuss ways to divide assets. Although Washington Bishop John B. Chane threatened a walkout if anyone divulged what was discussed, Bishop Robinson revealed details about the gathering in a Sept. 23 interview with the Associated Press.

Several bishops were “livid” about Bishop Robinson’s disclosures, according to a Sept. 28 story in the Living Church, an Episcopal publication.

At stake in the dispute are millions, if not billions, of dollars in real estate, endowments, pension funds and investments involved in a denomination founded in 1789.

The six staff members at ACN headquarters only a few blocks from the convention center include Wicks Stephens, a litigation and trial attorney from Los Angeles. He is heading up a cadre of six lawyers who will ensure conservatives leaving the denomination in protest of Bishop Robinson will not depart empty-handed.

He has been asked to advise on “dozens” of conflicts nationwide, Mr. Stephens said in an interview.

“Our biggest challenge at the moment is that too many bishops are looking to the canons [ecclesiastical laws] rather than being pastors to people who don’t agree with them,” he said. “If there’s a desire to amicably deal with issues of disagreement, we’re not seeing very much from the opposition in that respect.”

In late September, the Episcopal House of Bishops, meeting in Puerto Rico, responded with its 10-member “property task force” to defend the denomination against parishes across the country that are trying to secede.

“Because of the proliferation of lawsuits about church property, there is both a growing body of experience and wisdom emerging across the nation in these matters,” they said in a Sept. 30 statement. “Bishops deeply feel their responsibility to be good stewards of sacred places.”

The task force, proposed by California Bishop William Swing, will consist of bishops, diocesan chancellors or other lawyers. It will draw on “legal, canonical, financial, real estate and mediation experts,” according to a press release.

Bishop Swing has not yet announced the committee’s makeup, but Virginia Bishop Peter Lee has proposed his own chancellor, Richmond attorney Russell Palmore, be invited.

As of yesterday, Mr. Palmore said he had not been formally approached but he was interested.

“I think the issues relating to church property are very important and significant,” he said.

Canon law mandates all property of an abandoned church reverts to the diocese unless that parish predates the organization of the diocese. This is the state of affairs in several East Coast dioceses — particularly Virginia and Washington — where churches were established by Colonial settlers decades before the dioceses were founded.

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