Struggle Over Richmond Parish Heats up After Unauthorized Episcopal Visit

Episcopal News Service. July 30, 1992 [92155]

The struggle for the future of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, heated up recently after an unauthorized visit by a retired bishop renewed questions about the relationship of the parish to the Episcopal Church. Retired Bishop Donald Davies visited St. Luke's on July 26 to perform four confirmations during the Sunday liturgy without the permission of Southern Virginia Bishop Frank Vest.

The visit was the latest development in an unfolding struggle between the parish and the diocese since the parish voted on April 5 to affiliate with the nongeographic Missionary Diocese of the Americas (MDA). The MDA was created by the Episcopal Synod of America (ESA) in an attempt to protect traditionalists from what they called "hostile" dioceses. Davies was chosen by the ESA to provide episcopal oversight for the missionary diocese.

Attempts to reconcile the parish with the Diocese of Southern Virginia have not succeeded since the April decision. In early June, Vest informed St. Luke's rector, the Rev. Leo Combes, that he was inhibiting Combes from "performing any priestly or pastoral functions as an ordained person." In his letter, Vest told Combes that the diocesan standing committee had charged Combes with "abandonment of the communion of this church."

Davies describes visit as 'pastoral duty'

Despite the inhibition, Combes continued to serve as priest of St. Luke's, inviting Davies for an episcopal visit to confirm four congregants. Although Episcopal Church canons require bishops to receive permission to visit in other dioceses from the diocesan bishop, Davies contended that St. Luke's is part of his diocese -- the MDA -- and not a part of the Diocese of Southern Virginia.

"He didn't want me to come, but I told him I had a pastoral duty to perform," Davies told the Richmond Times-Dispatch of his conversation with Vest prior to the visit. He added that he had previously informed Vest that he would "travel through" the Diocese of Southern Virginia to get to St. Luke's.

In a July 23 letter, Vest requested that Davies "not make this visit. It would be pastorally disruptive to the life of this diocese to do so."

Although he opposed Davies's visit, Vest had no comment about it afterward, except to say that he expected "that the House of Bishops will have to take up this matter in Baltimore this September."

In a July 2 letter to Combes, Bishop William Wantland of Eau Claire urged Combes to seek ways to work out the difficulties with Vest. "It... gives time to see what can be done about the Missionary Diocese to make it canonical to avoid this problem in the future," Wantland said.

Wantland, a recognized scholar on canon law in the Episcopal Church and a bishop affiliated with the ESA, pointed out that current canons do not yet recognize the legal standing of the MDA. "The Missionary Diocese is made up of former Episcopal congregations, and priests not presently a part of, or in communion with, the Episcopal Church. While Bishop Davies is a bishop in good standing of the Episcopal Church, the diocese is not technically a part of that church, nor is it legally in communion with it," he wrote.

Thicket of legal questions

In the end, the debate over the control of St. Luke's property and, in effect, the validity of the MDA, may be determined by answers to a thicket of legal questions pending in Virginia courts.

In early June, St Luke's filed a petition in the Virginia state court in Richmond, asking that the court declare that the church property belongs to the parish and not to the diocese.

The petition argued that a Virginia Civil War-era statute allows a parish in a hierarchical denomination to join a new jurisdiction when the denomination had undergone formal ecclesiastical "division." The 1867 statute was applied to congregations in the Methodist Church when it divided into two denominations over the issue of slavery.

The Diocese of Southern Virginia filed a counter petition asserting its ownership of the property under diocesan and national canons. The diocese called for a dismissal of the case, contending that the Episcopal Church has not undergone a formal "division," and therefore St. Luke's cannot seek redress under the statute. In addition, the diocese claimed that any recognition of property rights for St. Luke's without the bishop's permission would violate diocesan canons.

Diocesan officials said that the case may center on the court's interpretation of word "division" in the 1867 statute. Although St. Luke's might assert that the Episcopal Church is "divided" over theological issues, the MDA and St. Luke's have consistently contended that they have not left the Episcopal Church -- only jurisdiction of established Episcopal Church dioceses. Even the parish's bulletin claims that it is "A parish of the Missionary Diocese of the Americas of the Episcopal Church USA."

Legal experts estimate that the case may be settled in the next few months. First, the court will have to rule on the motion of the diocese to dismiss the case. If the court declines to dismiss the case, then a trial to determine the question of the "division" and the property rights would follow. One observer said that, if there is a trial, it would probably happen "by the end of the year."