- The Washington Times - Monday, February 9, 2004

The Episcopal Church will announce today details on the financial hit it has taken because of parishes and dioceses withholding funds after the denomination’s first openly homosexual bishop was consecrated in November.

If 107 dioceses follow the lead of the Diocese of Virginia, the country’s largest, which last week shaved $257,428 off its annual contribution to the New York-based denomination, the losses could be in the millions.

“I am sure you’ll see a bite,” said one member of the executive council, a group of about 40 Episcopal leaders meeting this week in Tampa, Fla. Of the church’s $47.2 million 2004 budget, more than half — $29.4 million — must come from dioceses. Dioceses are asked to give 21 percent of what they get from congregations, although many give less.

But some, such as the Diocese of Washington (D.C.), increased their giving this year. Officials in the denomination — and several members of the council reached by phone — refused comment on the budget projections.

“People feel it’s a denomination that’s turned its back on God, so why give to it?” said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, whose bishop opposed the consecration of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who is openly homosexual.

Mr. Harmon predicted Episcopal officials will “minimalize the impact of what’s going on. The budgets look a lot more balanced than they really are because there are a lot of trust funds that can be used.”

Episcopal headquarters alone has about $300 million in assets, its finance officer said. Denominational assets run into the billions when added to assets from 7,305 parishes: everything from the stained glass to the pews, altars and carpets.

As the offspring of the Anglican Church in England, Episcopalians were early arrivals in the American colonies, acquiring some of the best pieces of downtown real estate during the 18th and 19th centuries. They still retain much of that land.

Any conservative churches wishing to leave the denomination would not be allowed to take anything with them because of the “Dennis canon,” a piece of legislation passed at the 1979 Episcopal General Convention in Denver.

Even if a congregation has built and maintained a church on its own, this church law compels it to cede all holdings to the diocese if it bolts. Civil courts usually rule against congregations that refuse to give up their property.

“The problem they are facing is: How do we get out of Egypt with the booty?” the Rev. Stephen Noll, an Episcopal theologian, wrote in a Nov. 9 open letter titled: “It’s the Property, Stupid.”

He added, “When it comes to church property, the Episcopal establishment is not interested in amicable settlements. Because they wrote the divorce law (e.g. the Dennis canon) in such a way that ‘no-fault’ divorce and equal division of the property is not an option.”

The exceptions are “colonial parishes” — parishes chartered before the diocese was founded. This is a major issue for dioceses on the Eastern seaboard. The Virginia diocese, founded in 1785, has 18 such churches. The Diocese of Washington, founded comparatively late in 1895 after splitting off from the Diocese of Maryland, has 44.

Sometimes bishops will do a pre-emptive strike to retain church property, as in the case of Christ Church in Acokeek, founded in 1698. The Prince George’s County church was sued in 2001 by Washington Suffragan Bishop Jane Dixon after she disputed the parish’s choice of a new pastor.

One of the fears expressed by the bishop was that the pastor, the Rev. Samuel Edwards, might take the parish out of the Episcopal Church, despite his assurances to the contrary.

The Washington diocese said it paid more than $600,000 in court costs over a two-year period: $539,015 in 2001 and $106,930 in 2002.

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