June 30, 2011

Third Congregation Settles with Episcopal Diocese

Yesterday’s e-mail newsletter from the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh carried the story that the congregation of St. James, Penn Hills, was leaving its Frankstown Road building and would begin using space at nearby Faith Community Church. The headline “St. James Church Makes Historic Move” made this sound like a wonderful development. A few paragraphs down, however, it became apparent that the move was not completely voluntary: “Written statements by the local Episcopal Church diocese of Pittsburgh expressing its expectations led us to believe that it was time to move on.”

In fact, St. James, Penn Hills, becomes the third congregation in Bob Duncan’s Pittsburgh diocese to settle with the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and the first to vacate its building voluntarily. Since the Board of Trustees of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh holds title to the building, the congregation was not in a good negotiating position.

A story in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offers a more balanced view of what is happening in Penn Hills. (The Web site of the Episcopal Diocese has not yet run a story on this topic.) The Ann Rodgers story begins
Members of an Anglican parish in Penn Hills have quietly handed over their building to the rival Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, saying they couldn't accept the ground rules for property negotiation and believed it was better to rent space in a different church nearby.
The story quotes St. James’ priest, the Rev. Doug Sherman, as explaining that the claims of the Dennis Canon and the insistence that “the value of all property and assets of the parish must be considered” meant that the congregation simply could not afford to stay in the building. In any case, the Episcopal diocese did not ask the congregation to leave.

The departing congregation will begin worshiping in its new quarters this Sunday. The Frankstown Road building will also see worship Sunday, as the Rev. Vicente Santiago will lead an Episcopal service for whoever shows up. The hope is that an Episcopal Church congregation can be re-established in Penn Hills.

On April 22, 2008, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, under Bob Duncan, published “Frequently Asked Questions about Realignment.” One of the questions dealt with was what the immediate effects would be on parishes. This was answered as followed:
There would be few immediate consequences for parishes. No property would immediately change hands. Expected lawsuits would largely target the Diocese.
All this was true. For the congregation of St. James, Penn Hills, however, such reassurances may seem less comforting now than they did three years ago.


  1. While the PPG account may be more balanced than the Duncan propaganda, Ann Rodgers continues to subtly skew her exposition of the history of the dispute. For example, the surviving Episcopal Diocese is not "new", despite the Rodgers emphasis on the numerical size of the departure as a "majority". The Rodgers statement of the legal status of the dispute also seems outdated. The bottom line is that a lot of parishioners, who believed what they were being told, are now paying the price for Duncan's overweening ambition to be an archbishop of some church, any church.

  2. Gary,

    I, too, noticed the “new” designation and thought of remarking on it. I decided one could consider this the equivalent of “reorganized.”

    Actually, the comments made by Doug Sherman should perhaps not be taken at face value. There is reason to think that the parish, which has been in decline for years, was having trouble supporting its existing infrastructure. Leaving its building behind may have been the congregation’s best option.

    By the way, the Episcopal diocese has now posted information on its Web site about St. James and two other churches about to resume having Episcopal services.

    EDITORIAL NOTE: Episcopal churches named after saints usually employ the progressive (e.g., St. Paul’s Episcopal Church). Usage is confused, however, when the saint’s name ends in “s” or in certain related cases (All Saints or All Saints’). Parishes themselves are often inconsistent, particularly over long periods of time. Although neither story I cited used an apostrophe, the story from the diocese has it both ways (St. James and St. James’). It also mentions St. Thomas, Barnesboro, which, perhaps, should be St. Thomas’. (I don’t think I have ever seen a St. James’s or St. Thomas’s Church, although neither rendering would be unreasonable.)

  3. Doug Sherman+ and the people of the Anglican congregation of St. James in the Penn Hills are very fine Christian people, and I would wish them all God's blessings as they venture into a new chapter of the life and ministry.

    For reasons that I don't understand well, Episcopal congregations in the East/Suburbs--the Penn Hills, Verona, Monroeville, Murrysville--have struggled for several decades. Although I'm sure it is true that the Anglican congregation felt some anxiety about the prospect of negotiations, I don't think it's fair to say that this was anything other than an entirely voluntary decision on their part. For years the Penn Hills congregation has strugged financially, and my guess is that remaining in the buildings would have been financially unsustainable in the long run anyway--even if there had been no concern about costs related to a negotiated settlement. Without access to the legacy of diocesan endowments and trusts the Anglican Diocese must have much less flexibility to direct resources to support mission congregations, so folks in these congregations are going to be left more or less to sink or swim on their own.

    In any event, Vicente Santiago+ was rector of the Church of St. James for several years, and it may be that some of the former members of that congregation who would like to continue to continue to worship in that place will remain or return to form the nucleus of a new/renewed Episcopal Church congregation. Vicente's knowledge of the surrounding community and his relationships and connections there will also be a strong asset. It will be interesting to see what might develop there in the months ahead.

    Bruce Robison

  4. Oops, in your Editorial Note I am sure you meant "Possessive" not "Progressive".

    And, Ann Rogers, what's with the choice of the word "Rival" to describe our diocese? I do not see the Episcopal Diocese as the "Rival" of the breakaway Anglicans. Mike Plaskett

  5. Thanks, Mike. I did, of course, mean “possessive.” I do wonder how I make mistakes like that. :-)


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