- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2000

When in doubt, call in the lawyers.
Up to 40 Episcopal parishes are doing just that as they plan to jump ship from an increasingly troubled denomination. The first number they call is usually that of Charles E. Nalls, 44, director of the Canon Law Institute in Georgetown.
Mr. Nalls, an international law and intellectual property attorney for DeKieffer and Horgan in downtown Washington, has a busy cell phone these days as parishes in Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania leave a denomination some feel is taking increasingly liberal stances on Scripture and sexuality issues.
The denomination nearly split over the question of homosexual "marriages" during the Episcopal Church's General Convention in July in Denver. Although Episcopalians narrowly voted down that resolution, they OK'd another providing "prayerful support, encouragement and pastoral care" to heterosexual and homosexual couples living together outside of marriage.
This put the Episcopal Church in the odd position of supporting sex outside of marriage.
That resolution, plus a statement by Albany, N.Y., Bishop Daniel Herzog that 60 of the country's 100 Episcopal dioceses are blessing same-sex couples, has precipitated a walk-out of entire parishes worth millions of dollars.
Many are joining the Anglican Mission in America, a Pawleys Island, S.C.-based group with its own two bishops. In January, the Anglican archbishops of Rwanda and South East Asia consecrated two American priests the Very Rev. John Rodgers of Ambridge, Pa., and the Rev. Chuck Murphy of Pawleys Island as "missionary bishops" to conservative Episcopalians in liberal American dioceses.
The surprise consecrations, conducted in Singapore, earned condemnation from many of the world's Anglican archbishops until July, when Episcopalians passed the sexuality resolution.
"Following General Convention, my phone and e-mail have not stopped," Mr. Nalls says. "For many priests and their parishes, [the convention] was the final line in the sand. They now regard the Episcopal Church as officially apostate and can no longer stay."
Twenty-five parishes have joined the AMiA to date, a drop in the bucket out of the Episcopal Church's 7,384 parishes. But Mr. Nalls promises the dam is about to break. The situation is so dire, he adds, that even an entire diocese which is a collection of dozens of parishes is thinking of leaving.
The rub: When a parish leaves, it rarely gets to take along its real estate, which technically belongs to the diocese. The emerging trend is of departing parishes which paid for their buildings, property and furnishings decades ago keeping their property and daring their diocese to sue them.
Some bishops, including the dioceses of Eastern Michigan and Vermont, have settled with departing parishes out of court. Other bishops, in such dioceses as Massachusetts and East Carolina, are taking these parishes to court.
The latter diocese involves St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Morehead City, N.C., which voted to leave the denomination in March. "The Episcopal Church has drifted away from what over 80 percent of Christians believe," said its pastor, the Rev. C. King Cole.
But its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniel III, took them to court. The case is still pending.
"What the Episcopal Church seems to understand is money and property," says Mr. Nalls, who is advising rich, older Episcopalians to revise their wills so as not to leave undesignated funds to the denomination. "People who don't want to fuel unorthodox behavior need to cut off the money."
Mr. Nalls' organization, which includes 35 volunteers and a dozen pro bono lawyers working out of a church basement, advises many denominations on ecclesiastical, or canon law. Its Web site, www.canonlaw.org, posts the rules or constitutions of 25 denominations ranging from the Mennonites and the Southern Baptists to the Nazarenes and the Assemblies of God.
But it's the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church that is taking up the bulk of the 30 hours a week he donates to his organization. That, plus his daytime job plus the two seminary classes a week he takes at the Dominican House of Studies at Catholic University, gets added to time spent with his wife and 6-year-old daughter.
"I don't sleep much," he says.
In late August, the Canon Law Institute sent a letter to 100 Episcopal diocesan bishops advising them on how to handle parishes who wish to leave their dioceses. Not only does Scripture forbid Christians to sue each other, it said, but a typical church property lawsuit costs at least $250,000. This does not count expert testimony at $4,000 a day.
In dioceses like Denver, where four parishes and five priests have left in recent months, the legal bills can bankrupt a diocese quickly.
"We suggested just letting them go," Mr. Nalls said. "The best analogy is to divorce. If there is to be a reconciliation, you don't encourage the two sides to have a slap fight in the parking lot of the courthouse. You don't encourage damaging the children."
Of three bishops who responded, the most adverse reaction came from the Rt. Rev. Peter J. Lee of the Diocese of Virginia, based in Richmond.
Bishop Lee, a church moderate, is in a tenuous position because about 20 of his parishes date back to colonial times. Canon law says churches that predate a diocese in this case before 1785 own their own property. Some of northern Virginia's largest and richest parishes, including Falls Church Episcopal and Christ Church in Alexandria, fall into this category.
"I cannot," Bishop Lee wrote, "in obedience to my own ordination vows, rule out in advance any use of secular courts… . Should a local congregation be controlled by a group that wishes to deny its Episcopal heritage, it would be my duty to bring that group back into the discipline of the Church …"
Bishop Neff Powell of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virgina, based in Roanoke, has used a similar argument. When one of his largest and most evangelical parishes, Church of the Holy Spirit, voted to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican (Episcopal) Church of Rwanda, Bishop Powell struck back. Unable to seize the parish's property which had been placed under the ownership of a foundation the bishop threatened in March to depose (defrock) the church's rector, the Rev. Quigg Lawrence. To date, he has not done so.
A more expensive dispute involves Christ Episcopal Church in Mobile, Ala., whose congregation voted Oct. 1 to split from the Episcopal Church. The 177-year-old congregation has assets (trust funds, property, church relics, investments) worth $10 million. The diocese recently filed suit in Mobile County Circuit Court to rule the church belongs to the diocese and the "remaining members" of the parish.
In response, the "new" Christ Church hired Vince Kilborn, a local trial lawyer known, according to the Mobile Register, "for his courtroom combativeness and high hourly rates."
The U.S. situation is viewed in a critical light by a coalition of 13 Anglican bishops and archbishops, serveral of whom will appear Nov. 26 at a Philadelphia-area parish in a show of solidarity with conservative Episcopalians. These international bishops consider the American church in a state of "pastoral emergency," said the pastor of the Gothic-style church they plan to visit.
"It's an incredible sacrifice they are making to proclaim their solidarity with us," says the Rev. David Moyers of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pa. "They're saying enough is enough. No more should the poison be exported, and the American church exports a lot of bad stuff into their areas."

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