Central Valley’s Episcopal Church lawsuits spread to Stockton

Posted by Kendall Harmon

The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin has filed a lawsuit against the former members of St. John the Evangelist, Stockton. It’s the ninth such lawsuit the diocese has filed against its former congregations that split from the national church to align with a more conservative Anglican order.

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Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)TEC ConflictsTEC Conflicts: San Joaquin* Culture-WatchLaw & Legal Issues

16 Comments
Posted August 31, 2010 at 5:00 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. IMGB007 wrote:

Ahh, more TEC-style missionary work…

August 31, 7:05 pm | [comment link]
2. Ad Orientem wrote:

By their fruits ye shall know them.

August 31, 7:51 pm | [comment link]
3. Bill C wrote:

The Episcopal Church is breaking all records for the ‘most lawsuits’.

August 31, 8:01 pm | [comment link]
4. upnorfjoel wrote:

No expense should be considered too great in securing property (and space) for a Church that is losing 40,000 members per year.

August 31, 9:43 pm | [comment link]
5. NoVA Scout wrote:

I would think the only remarkable thing would be if the Church or the Diocese simply accepted claims of ownership by people who leave.  That would strike me as a stunningly improbable outcome.  These lawsuits suits only occur in situations where those who depart attempt to claim property when they leave.  I rather suspect there would be no lawsuits where people simply left, an option that seems readily available and a highly principled position to take.  It is the unilateral taking of the property that forces the lawsuits, because it makes impossible any kind of businesslike negotiation about compensation, and it usurps rights of persons who do not choose to leave.  I still do not understand what the overarching ethical or legal principles are that convey property to large (proportionally) groups who leave the Church in a given parish, any more than I can discern an ethical or legal principle that permits a single departing parishioner to help himself to property when he chooses to move to a different church.  I would feel extremely “creeped out” (to use my daughters’ jargon) about anyone who left my church to start a new one, or to join the Methodists down the street, or who lost his faith, or who converted to Hinduism, and who felt entitled to help himself to property on the way out the door.  He might try to justify his appropriation by a claim that he gave generously while he was a member, and that he therefore has a possessory right in this or that, but I don’t think many would find that a viable rationale.  If he had a lot of buddies who were doing the same thing, it wouldn’t change the analysis.  Nor would the analysis change if the guy told us that, while it might seem strange that he’s lighting out with booty in his sack, but that his theology is more correct than those staying behind and therefore his possessory interests in chattels and accounts is perfected through good theology.  I would think it indefensible for the Church or a Diocese simply to acquiesce in the uncompensated takeover of property by a departing person or group, whether it be proportionally large or small in relation to the rest of the congregation.

August 31, 11:31 pm | [comment link]
6. little searchers wrote:

So # 5 it seems the message is to not support the episcopal church because you may lose your booty due to their incorrect theology.  Supporting the Anglican offshoot is a better bet.  Safer to your soul as well.

September 1, 12:38 am | [comment link]
7. alcuin wrote:

#5: You entirely miss the point. The issue is all to do with who has the title to the property. Focus on this and inform us of your understanding of Californian property laws.

September 1, 2:18 am | [comment link]
8. Already left wrote:

#5 - I believe you have the “leaving party” and the “staying party” confused, backwards. TEC is the one who left - changed 2000 years’ of theology and Biblical understanding. The Anglican church is just keeping things as they have always been: Jesus as the only way to God, marriage between one man and one woman.

September 1, 12:44 pm | [comment link]
9. Cennydd13 wrote:

We who have ‘left,’......and that is questionable…...ARE Anglican.  The matter of TEC being Anglican, however, is increasingly open to doubt, since they have consistently insisted on going their own way apart from the rest of us; their precious ‘polity’ being of overarching importance to them, and more important than the historic teachings of Christ and His Church throughout the ages.  It is they who have walked away from us, and not vice versa.

September 1, 1:40 pm | [comment link]
10. Cennydd13 wrote:

No matter how much spin they put on things, no matter how much they deny that it is they who’ve left us, they can never erase the opinion of 90% of the Anglican Communion and traditional Christianity that they have deserted the faith once delivered and have adopted Arianism.

September 1, 9:30 pm | [comment link]
11. NoVA Scout wrote:

Nos. 8 and 9, how does this clarify the owership issues?  My question is what is the controlling principle that causes ownership to alight with those who decide to leave. Yours is interesting rhetoric, but it is inherently subjective as to who is leaving whom.  Where does title lie and on what basis?  If the departure is in accord with Diocesan procedures for departing and transferring title, I guess it’s OK, but it still looks, at least from the outside looking in, like a bunch of people setting out on their own course (which may be a perfectly sound decision) and then saying that they have some sort of entitlement to property as a result of that decision.  Why would it be probable or appropriate that others would acquiesce in that?

September 1, 10:01 pm | [comment link]
12. Cennydd13 wrote:

Because it’s the right thing to do?  It seems like 90% of the Communion agrees with us…..or do you dispute that fact, too?

September 1, 11:30 pm | [comment link]
13. Rob Eaton+ wrote:

Nova,
Indeed, what is in the courts is the question of ownership by title.  The first phase was to get the civil court to rule that the Diocese of San Joaquin as a Corporation Sole was headed up not by John-David Schofield, but by some other bishop, in this case, Jerry Lamb.  The court agreed, but that is now in appeal.  The Corp Sole issue would cover all the unincorporated entities associated with the DSJ.  That is because, and only because, the diocesan canons specifically state that any title and deed, and all bequests, and other funds, for all unincorporated entities and their facilities are held in trust by the Corp Sole.
In the DSJ case this would include probably close to 80% of all congregation facilities, including St James Cathedral.
The second phase would be going after the incorporated congregations and any other incorporated facilities, that is, incorporated apart from the Corp Sole.  These entities hold their own title and deed, and have not been required to forfeit their right to such holding.
The kicker is the Dennis Canon, with question about the formality of its passage by General Convention 30+ years ago, which basically states that ALL properties—no matter who owns them—are held in trust by The Episcopal Church.  Whether it truly got passed or not will most likely not get a hearing in civil court.  So now the question is, can such a canon claiming trustee status be considered correct?  I can tell you this, NOBODY, NO PARISH ORGANIZATION, or other title and deed holding entity was asked, nor was asked for their permission, to CONSENT to such trustee relationship.  Nor did “The Episcopal Church” hold those deeds and titles at any time in order for “THEM” (General Convention) to create such a Trust.
So you see, on one side of the legal question is the matter of “ownership”, if you will, that is, the parishes, etc., who hold title and deed free and clear.  The other side of the legal matter is not “ownership” per se, but the “intended purpose” of such facilities as expressed by a “held in trust” concept (such a spin, eh? that being the bottom line, being able to hold such title in trust so somebody else can dictate who uses such facilities, and potentially sell them off - just lilke an OWNER might - if revenue was needed).

To respond to such a claim as trustee-ship over incorporated properties, it takes time and money.  Time and money to argue a concept that was poorly worded, unwisely slammed through, and could have been dealt with in a much more clear manner.

Now, all of the above demands a working, agreeable relationship between diocese and congregation.  The unwritten expectation is that an Episcopal congregation will want to remain as an Episcopal congregation within an Episcopal diocese.
Depending upon the diocese, the manner for becoming a non-Episcopal diocesan congregation is legally possible or not possible.

But the real matter - and it obviously encompasses those congregations willing to remain in association with each other in a particular diocese - is whether or not a DIOCESE can remove itself from The Episcopal Church.  The answer -  purely Canonically, and thus legally - is “Yes”. 

Somewhere in all of that is supposed to be the higher calling of how Christians treat each other.  “Let it go” is applicable to both sides of the argument.

September 2, 6:47 am | [comment link]
14. deaconmark wrote:

What i cannot understand is why this has not landed in criminal court under RICO statues?

September 2, 2:44 pm | [comment link]
15. NoVA Scout wrote:

NO. 12.  I think we can stipulate that both those who leave and those who stay feel that they are doing the “right thing.”  It’s not a particularly helpful concept in sorting out secular ownership issues given that it covers both (or all) sides of the story. 

NO. 14, while I am troubled by the concept that people leaving a church can claim ownership of all, parts or pieces of the church they leave, I do not believe it appropriate to charge these people with crimes, federal or state.  I think there is simply a lot of confusion and clouded ethical thinking on the subject.  I have many friends who have left the Episcopal Church but continue to worship in the same buildings they occupied before they left.  I think they have acted unwisely, and have been manipulated to some extent by leaders who did not have the courage to simply depart, but I do not view their actions as criminal in any sense.  It is simply abysmally bad judgment and and loss of moral bearings.  In my neck of the woods, a kind of Group Think phenomenon set in and it became very difficult for people to contemplate that their position might be counterbalanced by other views.

Rob - thank you for that patient explanation.  You provide a clear statement of the legal issues in California.  My knowledge of canon law has gaps and I was not aware that there were provisions in TEC for a diocese to withdraw.  I am inclined to agree with your point that if those procedures are followed and it is clear that title to properties transfer at the time of withdrawal, there is little to discuss.  I find it very unclear, however, how an individual congregation (the incorporated parishes in your example) can act to separate itself from a diocese or the national church in a fashion that conveys or quiets title.  Who is the congregation?  Is this simply a matter of a head count at a given time?  If so, do we encourage a situation in which factions periodically organize “votes” on divisive issues with an eye on the property prize?  Not a particularly healthy situation, I would think, as a general principle. 

Your description confirms that there are differences around the country.  I live in a jurisdiction where individual groups within parishes have claimed to withdraw from the Diocese, and by so withdrawing, to have gained ownership of the physical plant of the church against any interest of those who stayed affiliated with the Diocese and with the national Church.  That is a distinction that may color my outlook. 

From an individual perspective, however, I would feel ethically compromised were I to leave a church and attempt to assert a possessory claim against someone who, for whatever reason, decided to stay.  I have a degree of sympathy for those who elect to depart TEC rather than continue to deal with some of the excesses, lapses and misjudgments of its national leadership, but I have chosen (so far) not to follow that course.  I am more than a bit vexed by the idea that my ability to continue to worship at my church is negated by unilateral actions by people who elect to depart.

September 2, 6:41 pm | [comment link]
16. Cennydd13 wrote:

I can attest to what Rob Eaton+ said:  From 1974 to 2003, I was a vestryman and deanery delegate to diocesan convention…..first in the Diocese of California, and then in the Diocese of El Camino Real after the split from the former.  Not ONCE in all of those years was the question of the Dennis Canon even so much as discussed among us, nor was it ever broached to any of the vestries.  None of us even knew of the existence of that canon until it was supposedly ‘passed.’  And now we have been told that the Dennis Canon is in the TEC Archives somewhere in Texas and cannot be accessed without TEC’s permission…...which I read as KJS’ permission.  If the Dennis Canon was actually passed, then why can we not see the proof?

September 2, 9:01 pm | [comment link]
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