On Friday, Dec. 1, the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Peter James Lee, sent a letter to the rectors, vestries and wardens of congregations known to have engaged in a “40 Days of Discernment” [TM] program to consider their place in The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia. Some of those congregations have chosen to conclude that program with votes, to be held this month, to determine their future affiliation with the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of VirginiaExtract from the Bishop's Letter:
In his letter, Bishop Lee highlighted that the members of those congregations are cherished members of the Diocese and the Episcopal Church, and that he and the Standing Committee hope they will decide to continue to worship as one, unified family.
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The letter also explained some of the potential legal and canonical consequences of a decision to separate from the Episcopal Church, addressing issues of property and personal liability.
“Along with the damaging effects any split would have on the Diocese as a whole and these churches in particular, we are concerned that these congregations may not fully understand the potential legal consequences of their actions,” said Russell Palmore, chancellor of the Diocese of Virginia. “The decision to leave the Diocese should be a fully informed one.”
I remind you that absent a negotiated settlement of property, an attempt to place your congregation and its real and personal property under the authority of any ecclesial body other than the Diocese of Virginia and the bodies authorized by its canons to hold church property will have repercussions and possible civil liability for individual vestry members.Read the whole thing here.
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Consistent with these trust canons are Canon I.7.3 of the Episcopal Church and Canon 15.2 of the Diocese of Virginia. These canons forbid vestries from alienating, selling, exchanging, encumbering or otherwise transferring any real property, including but not limited to consecrated property for any Church or Chapel which has been used solely for divine services, without the written consent of the Bishop and the Standing Committee of the Diocese. Neither the Standing Committee nor I has been asked to consent, or consented, to any proposed property transfer by [your] Church.
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The decision of a congregation to leave the Episcopal Church places its clergy in a difficult position. Clergy who are affiliated with such a congregation risk a finding by the Standing Committee that they have abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church. If the Bishop agrees with that finding, he may inhibit the cleric from officiating in any Episcopal Church, and if the cleric does not recant within six months, the cleric may be released from the obligations of ministry and removed therefrom. The cleric would thereafter be ineligible to earn further credited service towards a pension from the Church Pension Fund and the employing church could not pay pension assessments. (The cleric would be credited for service prior to his removal and upon reaching retirement age, would receive a pension calculated on his credited service in the Episcopal Church.)
The cleric, and lay employees of the parish, would no longer participate in the diocesan health insurance plan and the departing parish could not participate in property and casualty insurance plans sponsored by the affiliates of the Church Pension Fund.
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I am bound, just as you and your vestry members are, to adhere to and to enforce the Church’s canon law. My obligation to uphold the canon law derives from the oath I took when I was ordained and consecrated Bishop. Your obligation, which continues even now, derives from the promises and commitments you made. In the case of the Rector, those promises were made at his ordination and at his installation as your Rector by one of the Bishops of Virginia.
The principles reflected in the Church’s canon law as it relates to parish property have been enforced by many courts throughout the United States in cases involving hierarchical churches such as the Episcopal Church. Those cases include cases decided by Virginia courts.
'"40 Days of Discernment" and the "40 Days of Discernment" logo are trademarks and service marks of The Falls Church and Truro Church.' Or, perhaps not. Even intangible property is property. Just kidding.
UPDATE: The Falls Church and Truro Church respond. And, Washington Times coverage also from VirtueOnline.
UPDATE 2: Titusonenine has posted the Wash Times article and is generating lots of comment.