Historic Parish in Diocese of Quincy Embroiled in Dispute over Future

Episcopal News Service. March 10, 1994 [94048]

A long-simmering dispute among some members of St. John's Episcopal Church in Quincy, Illinois, has reached the boiling point, forcing a showdown over the future of an historic parish's relationship with the diocese and the ownership of valuable church properties.

Two rival groups contend that they hold valid claim on the church's property and an estimated $2.5 million endowment. Both sides have hired lawyers, and the fate of the stone building completed in 1853 -- a national landmark and cathedral of the diocese until 1962 -- may be decided in court.

"I think this is a terribly important case for the Episcopal Church, and I'm not surprised they're fighting it," one lawyer involved in the dispute told the press. "This is not a fight about people -- a fight about saving souls -- but rather it's a fight about power and property."

Long series of events

On February 25, the vestry of St. John's informed Bishop Edward MacBurey of Quincy and Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning that it had voted to withdraw from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Quincy, renamed itself "St. John's Anglican Church," and would eventually affiliate with one of the so-called "continuing churches."

The vestry's announcement followed earlier action by the diocesan standing committee and MacBurney to inhibit St. John's rector, the Rev. Garrett Clanton, as a priest in the diocese because he had abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church. The action was based on charges by some of his parishioners -- charges that Clanton denies.

The argument over Clanton's status as an Episcopal priest and the leadership of the parish is the most recent dispute in a long series of events that has riven the 235-member parish.

The initial dispute at St. John's erupted in January 1993 when a sizable majority of parishioners at an annual meeting voted to "enter negotiations" with the diocese to separate from the Episcopal Church. Shortly thereafter, however, a group of parishioners expressed the desire to remain in the diocese and the Episcopal Church.

Clanton and the majority of parishioners sought to ensure that St. John's would maintain a traditionalist theological position, including its historic opposition to the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Ironically, many of the parishioners who wish to remain in the diocese and the Episcopal Church also wish to maintain a traditionalist position. They cite the fact that Bishop MacBurney is recognized throughout the wider church as a leading traditionalist and that the diocese has recently elected a traditionalist, the Rev. Keith Ackerman of Arlington, Texas, to be the next bishop of the diocese.

Other parishioners who wish to stay in the diocese are "more than willing to begin the use of the 1979 prayerbook and become actively involved in the life of the diocese and the church at large," said the Rev. John Throop, president of the diocesan standing committee, in a telephone interview. Throop is former executive director of Episcopalians United, a conservative renewal group in the church.

According to Throop, many parishioners at St. John's reevaluated their viewpoint of the larger Episcopal Church in the light of "the positive response of the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief to last summer's historic flood. That response demonstrated that there are many good things going on in this church," he said.

Attempts to find a solution failed

Throughout 1993, a series of attempts to find a solution between the diocesan leadership and the parish leadership failed. Relationships between MacBurey and the parish leadership continued to deteriorate as he and the diocesan standing committee moved to protect the rights of the parishioners who wished to stay in the diocese.

Following the vestry's February 25 claim that it had left the Episcopal Church, the stage was set for a showdown. During the Sunday morning liturgy on February 27, Throop invited all parishioners who wished to remain in the diocese to depart the church and reorganize as a mission congregation.

More than half followed Throop out of the church and into the parish hall where they elected new officers and sought the appointment of a priest-in-charge. According to diocesan officials, 12 members of the original vestry have been suspended from the sacraments and the process of excommunication has begun.

Throop said that the diocese "will vigorously pursue every legal avenue open to us to defend the diocese's control over the property and assets because we know that they are held in trust for the diocese as long as there are Episcopalians who wish to worship there."

On March 4 a local judge issued a temporary restraining order forbidding the so-called Anglicans from preventing members of St. John's Episcopal Church and diocesan officials access to the building. Until the mission congregation regains control of the property, it will gather in another space nearby, Throop said. "Those persons loyal to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church will be provided for and guided by the bishop and standing committee," he added.