Parish's Decision to Join Missionary Diocese May Provoke Property Battle

Episcopal News Service. April 10, 1992 [92080]

The decision by the first Episcopal Church parish to join the Missionary Diocese of America (MDA) may provoke a legal battle over control of its property, and determine whether the MDA is a part of the Episcopal Church.

St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, voted on April 5 to leave the Diocese of Southern Virginia and affiliate with the MDA. "We felt obliged to seek alternative episcopal oversight because the beliefs and actions of the bishop and leadership of the diocese... contrast sharply with our understanding of the authority of Scripture and faith commitment to traditional Christianity," said Patricia Sneed, senior warden of St. Luke's, in a press release issued after the vote.

The nongeographic missionary diocese was formed in December 1991 by the Episcopal Synod of America (ESA), which contended that traditionalists in the Episcopal Church needed the MDA to protect them from "persecution" by hostile, liberal bishops.

The Rev. Leo Combes, rector of St. Luke's, said that the parish did not see eye to eye with the bishop on a variety of theological and liturgical matters, including St. Luke's desire to use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. "Our theology and churchmanship suggested that we were a match with MDA," Combes said.

Dispute over resolutions was 'last straw'

According to Combes, members of St. Luke's were particularly angered by an incident prior to the diocesan council -- the annual convention of the Diocese of Southern Virginia. A dispute arose when resolutions submitted to the council by St. Luke's were ruled out of order by diocesan officials because they were received after the canonical deadline for submission.

Combes suggested that the content of the resolution -- including one that criticized homosexual lifestyles -- was the real reason they were not considered. He said that the incident represented "a kind of last straw. Many folks felt like they had been mistreated by the process," he said.

Bishop Frank Vest of Southern Virginia said that the substance of the resolutions from St. Luke's were dealt with in other resolutions that were considered, but "they were not supported by the council."

Following the council meeting, members of St. Luke's sent Vest a letter with a set of grievances outlining conditions for their continued participation in the life of the diocese.

Vest described the letter as a "nonnegotiable set of demands," including some things that were noncanonical in the Episcopal Church. He immediately called a congregational meeting to address their concerns. "I responded to their demands -- told them what I could and would do," Vest said. Yet, despite the efforts during the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, Vest said that he had no sense "that we had reached any kind of reconciliation."

Colliding with Episcopal Church canons

The vote by St. Luke's occurred less than three months after traditionalist bishops urged Episcopal parishes to work out any disagreements they have with their bishop and stay within established diocesan structures whenever possible.

Until now the MDA sought to organize parishes outside of established diocesan structures in the Episcopal Church. Observers have said that it was just a matter of time before the strategy of the MDA collided with Episcopal Church canons.

According to Cedrick Crittenden, assistant to the bishop for the MDA, 13 congregations are affiliated with the MDA, including St. Luke's and a small parish in Canada. Crittenden said that he was not aware of "any negotiations between the MDA and other established Episcopal parishes" at the present time, although "individuals from other established parishes have been in contact."

Combes admitted that he and the wardens had been in conversation with officials at the MDA "for quite a while," prior to the dispute over the diocesan council resolutions and the congregational meeting with Vest.

Crittenden confirmed that retired Bishop Donald Davies, administrator of the MDA, had met with the vestry and congregation at St. Luke's prior to the decision to affiliate with the MDA to "present options for staying with the diocese or joining the MDA." Vest charged that Davies had visited St. Luke's "without my knowledge. I did not learn about Bishop Davies's visit until I read about it in the newspaper," he said.

Unanswered questions about the missionary diocese

The action by St. Luke's may bring into focus unanswered questions about the status of the missionary diocese and the persons affiliated with it.

"We are not leaving the Episcopal Church," Combes said. "Our parish is simply becoming a part of a diocese that reflects better our own faith commitment. We remain members in good standing of the Episcopal Church and certainly of the Anglican Communion."

"The presiding bishop and the archbishop of Canterbury have consistently said that the missionary diocese is not part of the Episcopal Church nor the Anglican Communion," Vest said. He reported that he will seek the advice of his standing committee and diocesan chancellor to map out a strategy for a continued ministry at St. Luke's. "Some of the members may have decided to leave, but St. Luke's Episcopal Church will remain."

Vest suggested that he may send a letter to each member of St. Luke's informing them that their action severs ties with the Episcopal Church. He said that he had taken no action regarding the status of Combes, but that it "appears that Combes has abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church."

Who owns the church?

All questions about episcopal oversight and membership in the Anglican Communion aside, the decision to affiliate with the MDA raises a very practical question that could be the most contentious one of all. Who owns the church?

According to the press release issued by St. Luke's, the congregation claims to hold "a clear title to the church property... [having received] its original charter from the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1772, predating both the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Southern Virginia."

"I don't know whether the property will be a problem, but we will not hand over the property -- I know that," Combes added.

Vest said that there are "over 100 colonial churches in the dioceses of Southern Virginia, Virginia, and Southwest Virginia. All of them voluntarily became part of the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution." There have been at least three cases in the Commonwealth of Virginia where the people wanted to leave and take property with them "and the courts have always ruled that the trustees of the parish hold property in trust for the diocese as part of the wider Episcopal Church," Vest said.

"There is no way that they have any kind of claim on the church property," Vest added. "If they will pursue that legally, we will respond."