The California Supreme Court has issued a decision unanimously favorable to The Episcopal Church, on the question of who has the proper right to church property in the case of parishes whose members choose to abandon The Episcopal Church. In this, they support the well-argued Appeals Court decision of last year.
Still, many people on the dissenting side feel that this was a mistake. They almost invariably cast this as an issue of ownership of property; and, indeed, the courts can do little but to frame it as such. But the real issue is not ownership, but control and use, of the property in question. And this is where the church's understanding of itself comes in. As I wrote in a post in June of 2007, this is about the alienation of property from its use by the church for the church -- that is, from The Episcopal Church of which the parish, or the diocese, is an element, not a mere detachable and autonomous entity. I framed the discussion in terms which find an echo in the Supreme Court decision, and I repeat them here:
...much as folks like to demean the Dennis Canon, it is the law of the church; moreover, it was created in response to the request of the Supreme Court to render implied trusts (on the basis of which such cases had been decided up until then as sufficient) explicit. In short, there was no change in practice with the introduction of the Dennis Canon, merely a spelling out of what was already implied by both uniform practice and the already long-existing canons on alienation.... (Parishes cannot alienate, that is abuse, church property without the permission of the bishop and standing committee — clear evidence of the hierarchical nature of such decision-making processes concerning property.)
More than that, a moral issue is involved. Some have suggested that it is not fair that members of a dissenting parish should have to leave their property. This begs the question that it is “their” property. It isn’t, on several grounds. (I will not apply the various epithets of theft, poaching, &c., as I think the dissidents are honestly though mistakenly convinced of their proper ownership.)
Giving: When people give to the church, they give up control over what they have given. (A designated gift can, of course, allow for limited degree of control as to purpose.) However, most gifts are for the general operation of the church and its mission. Many people claim a tax deduction for such gifts; and if they were to attempt to recover them would incur a tax liability. It is an affront to the concept of stewardship to try to regain control over something you have given for the work of a larger entity. It would be very odd indeed if people could remove, say, a stained glass window, because they didn't like the new rector's preaching. We should not only not let our right hand know what our left hand is doing when we give open-handedly, but if we do know, forget it as soon as possible.
Custodianship: custodians have the care of property but they do not own it. They maintain it for the benefit of others. (Remember what Archbishop Temple said about the nature of the church: the only institution dedicated to serve those not yet its members.) The present members of a parish do not own the parish; it isn’t about “them.” They are not free to do with it as they please. Even in the days of pew rent, people only “rented” their pews.
Franchise: Parishes function as a part of and under the name of The Episcopal Church. While some may now see this to be a liability, for most of the life of these congregations it was an asset in that newcomers to the community could identify the parish as part of a larger entity, with its own identity. It is only through that larger entity that these parishes participate in the real-life Anglican Communion, as the Panel of Reference recently affirmed.
Tenancy: a church is the people, not the building; but not always the same people — as members pass into the ranks of the church expectant new members are added to the church militant. All of us, in the long run, are only temporary members of any congregation; tenants, not owners.
Usufruct: in a sense all congregations are like the Louisiana widow who has the right to continue to live in her intestate husband’s home, but doesn’t have the authority to sell it out from under the children, who inherit by right. (As I understand it, under Louisiana law a spouse is not an inheritor by right. That might seem odd, but it is similar to the situation in not-for-profit corporations which, when they dissolve, don’t divvy up the assets among the surviving members of the board, but turn the property over to another not-for-profit entity.) Moreover, the Louisiana widow loses usufruct over the property when she remarries, and the children come into their own inheritance. This seems a good analogy for the congregations who have hooked up with Uganda. There are still loyal Episcopalians who have the right to that property, and there will be more to come. The church is not only about the past but the future.
Stare decisis, returning to where we came in: In a hierarchical church such as The Episcopal Church, all real parish property is, and always has been, held in trust for the work of that church. Some have suggested that this case may be overturned if it comes to the Supreme Court of the United States. I would suggest that should it reach that Court, it will most likely rule in favor of TEC, since the Dennis Canon was enacted at it’s recommendation, to render explicit what was already implicit (and universal practice until that point, and was also covered in the canons on alienation, which go back to the 19th century).
It seems to me that the California Supreme Court takes my view of things, in general and in detail.
Tobias Haller BSG
Update: for those who don't know, the photo is of Bishop Walter Dennis. Walter was an old friend and colleague, and was Visitor to the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory. I snapped this portrait of him at one of his Visits. He is the source of the eponymous "Dennis Canon."