Struggle Between Parish and Diocese of Southern Virginia Enters a 'Waiting Game'

Episcopal News Service. April 24, 1992 [92093]

The struggle between members of St. Luke's Church in Richmond, Virginia, who voted on April 5 to affiliate with the nongeographic Missionary Diocese of the Americas (MDA), and leaders in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia has shifted into a waiting period to see who will make the next move.

Bishop Frank Vest of Southern Virginia continued to assert that St. Luke's property belonged to the diocese rather than to its members. Although he has not yet taken any direct steps to challenge the claim by members of the parish that they own the church property, Vest said that he would soon meet with the standing committee and diocesan chancellor to determine options.

"I have been moving very slowly on the matter," Vest said, "because I want to give the members of St. Luke's every opportunity to reconsider their action and reconcile with the diocese."

The Rev. Leo Combes, rector of St. Luke's, said that the members of the parish were "unwavering" in their decision to affiliate with the traditionalist MDA, and that their mood was "upbeat." He reported that income and attendance "has doubled since we voted to join the missionary diocese."

Combes also reported that he has had little or no contact with other members of the Episcopal diocese since the vote, but admitted that St. Luke's had begun some cooperative ventures and pulpit exchanges with a nearby congregation of the Anglican Catholic Church, a small denomination that broke with the Episcopal Church in the late 1970s.

According to Combes, the parish recently prevented three diocesan officials from entering the church when they sought to conduct an audit and inventory of its assets. He reported that an armed guard is posted at the church overnight and "someone is there 24 hours a day." Combes said that the parish's lawyer advised them to guard the property "because if the diocese changed the locks, it would be pretty hard to get them out of there."

However, Combes continued to assert that Vest would be welcome to visit St. Luke's if he wanted -- although not to exercise any episcopal oversight. "He is no longer my bishop," Combes insisted.

Charges, countercharges an omen of the battle ahead?

Although both sides have assumed a lower profile during the Holy Week and Easter period, a recent flurry of charges and countercharges in the press may be an omen of the battle ahead.

The Rev. George Estes, former diocesan archdeacon, denied recent claims by members of St. Luke's that they had been "ignored" or neglected over the years by diocesan leadership.

"I would hardly call supporting St. Luke's through a critical time with between $50,000 and $70,000 being ignored by the diocese," Estes said in a letter quoted by the Richmond News-Leader.

Estes said that the financial assistance had helped St. Luke's from shutting down in the 1960s. He said that St. Luke's had received more than $20,000 to repair its building, and that the diocese had contributed to St. Luke's annual budget for nearly five years.

Although officials at St. Luke's acknowledged that the diocese had provided financial assistance during a five-year "crisis" period when the church was classified as a mission, they denied Estes's estimates of assistance and said that they had received slightly more than $28,000. "We checked all the books, and that's all we found," said Patricia Sneed, the senior warden of St. Luke's.

What is the status of the MDA?

In addition to a potential battle for control of the church property, there is a simmering debate about the implication of the parish's decision to affiliate with a nongeographic diocese, and the canonical status of the MDA.

Several experts on Episcopal Church canon law point out that the General Convention is the only body in the church with the authority to recognize new dioceses -- and that no organization within the church has the authority to give permission for parishes or rectors to break the canons of the church.

When the MDA was established, the presiding bishop, his council of advice, and the archbishop of Canterbury warned that it was "potentially schismatic."

"The House of Bishops and General Convention have not said that the Missionary Diocese is not a part of the Episcopal Church," said Sneed in an April 14 letter to Vest. "As you well know, Bishop Browning can only advise on such matters; and certainly, you and the archbishop of Canterbury have a right to your personal opinions," she said.

Combes admitted that the status of the MDA would "probably have to be made by specific action of the General Convention." He predicted that the House of Bishops might have to "take up the matter" of the missionary diocese when it meets in Baltimore in September.

"In the long run, I predict that the Episcopal Church will accept the missionary diocese as a valid ministry within the church," Combes said.