Four retired Episcopal bishops have issued a challenge to their own denomination, asking where church leaders are finding the funds to mount simultaneous lawsuits against fleeing conservative congregations.
In an open letter dated July 14 to the church's 40-member Executive Council, the bishops called the lawsuits "an outrageous example of exacerbating rather than reconciling the divisions in this church."
Thousands of Episcopalians have departed since the 2003 consecration of the openly homosexual New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson. Numerous congregations in several states, including several in Northern Virginia, are holding onto their property, provoking legal responses from the denomination, which says it alone holds title to church properties and assets.
"We, in the name of the living God, declare that by litigation, you may win possession of some buildings and land, but you will never get the people back by the most potent litigation that money can buy," the bishops wrote. "The Episcopal Church has the capacity to bankrupt and destroy all of the congregations and dioceses that dare to meet the Episcopal Church in court. But that will not get the people back."
The letter was instigated by retired Texas Bishop Maurice Benitez. Other signatories were retired South Carolina Bishop C. FitzSimons Allison, retired Eau Claire, Wis., Bishop William Wantland and retired West Tennessee Bishop Alex Dickson.
The letter asked for a public report on how much money the church has spent in recent years on court costs and attorneys' fees and where in the church budget the costs are listed.
"An open and transparent disclosure is crucially important to avoid speculation, rumors and consequent distrust of the Episcopal Church," the letter concluded.
In March, the Executive Council tapped its investment income an extra 0.5 percent and borrowed $2.3 million from its short-term reserves to stave off a $3.8 million 2007 budget deficit, according to Episcopal News Service.
"If they don't have enough money in the program budget, where are they getting the money for this litigation?" Bishop Allison asked in an interview. Bishop Benitez, he added, has had 30 responses to the letter, "some of which are very ugly."
The bishops also asked whether trust funds are being raided to fund the lawsuits and how much the Boston-based law firm of Goodwin Procter is being paid for representing the church. The church's chancellor, David Booth Beers, is a partner at the firm's D.C. office.
Church spokesman Robert Williams said the church's 2007 budget includes at least $800,000 for lawsuits with about $360,000 more available if needed. In many cases, he added, the dioceses have initiated the lawsuits and the denomination is contributing support.
He didn't expect an official response to the bishops' letter until October, when the Executive Council is next slated to meet in Dearborn, Mich.