Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Diocese of Virginia, embroiled in the largest property dispute in the history of the Episcopal Church, is taking out a $2 million line of credit to finance lawsuits against 11 churches that left the denomination a year ago.

The announcement, made in the pages of this month’s Virginia Episcopalian, is the latest in a series of legal battles that is draining the Episcopal Church of millions of dollars. The denomination has filed lawsuits in at least 12 states against churches leaving over disputes on biblical authority and the 2003 election of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who lives with a homosexual lover.

The diocese says it will sell off “non-strategic” diocesan properties to raise the money needed to win back $30 million to $40 million worth of real estate and assets.

The diocese has spent $1 million to date on the lawsuits, but instead of paying back the sum, is simply paying the interest — $80,000 — on the loan. The diocese borrowed from restricted endowment funds for the money, spokesman Patrick Getlein said.

“Church pledges to the diocesan budget will not be used to fund litigation,” he said in an e-mail. “There have been some churches, regions and individuals who have made unsolicited contributions to the cost of litigation, which is very much appreciated.”

The diocese plans to sell surplus property — what Mr. Getlein termed as “unimproved, unconsecrated land” — to pay back what it borrowed from the endowments. Still, the $80,000 will appear as an item on the diocese’s 2008 budget, which must be approved during the annual diocesan convention Jan. 25 and 26 in Reston.

The diocese has had to scramble for revenues, as six churches have yet to pay any of their 2007 pledges — totaling $20,000 — to the diocese. The diocese is also missing $180,000 in pledges to its $4.79 million 2008 budget, although Mr. Getlein said it’s typical for churches not to promise specific amounts until they receive their Christmas contributions.

The national Episcopal Church, a partner to the diocese in the lawsuit, has not revealed the source of all its legal funds despite two letters from five retired bishops last year demanding to know.

“We are concerned that there could be a violation of federal pension fund laws,” retired Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire, Wis., told Living Church, an Episcopal magazine. “If they are using endowment funds, some of those are restricted.”

The denomination has filed lawsuits in at least 12 states against churches seeking to leave. An Oct. 31 Episcopal News Service story quoted church chancellor David Beers as terming the legal battles as “costly” and the resulting bills as “heavy.”

The Anglican District of Virginia, representing the 11 churches, spent $1 million on legal fees last year and plans to spend another $1 million this year, Vice Chairman Jim Oakes said yesterday. Its members have pledged to raise $3 million.

“If people in the pews knew how much money was being spent on this stuff, there’d be pressure to put an end to this,” he said. “We just hate spending this money on lawyers.”

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