March 22, 2018

Pittsburgh Churches Settle (Sort Of)

After nearly a decade of secret negotiations, nearly all of the churches that left the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh for what became the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh in the Anglican Church in North America and have been in legal limbo since 2008 have made an agreement with the Episcopal Church diocese that stabilizes their status for the immediate future. The agreement was announced Wednesday, February 28, when it was posted on the Web sites of the two Pittsburgh dioceses. (I phoned the Anglican Diocese on March 1 to point out that the text of the agreement on its Web site ended in the middle of a sentence. The omission has since been corrected.) Bishop Dorsey McConnell wrote a letter to the Episcopal diocese about the agreement,

Background

Recall that, in October 2008, the convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh voted to leave The Episcopal Church. This grossly improper development was engineered primarily by Bishop Robert Duncan, who, by that time, had been deposed by The Episcopal Church. Although many parishes claimed to have left the diocese, a significant number remained. The leadership of the Episcopal diocese was rebuilt, and a new “Anglican Diocese” was created, ludicrously maintaining the fiction that it was the entity formed from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1865.

Although similar schisms have occurred elsewhere—in the dioceses of San Joaquin, Fort Worth, Quincy, and South Carolina—the legal context of the Pittsburgh split was unique. Calvary Church, the most prominent church of the diocese, along with St. Stephen’s Church, a decidedly less prominent church, had sued the bishop and many diocesan leaders over early skirmishes in Duncan’s takeover plot. This litigation resulted in a 2005 stipulation agreed to by all parties. The most important provision of this agreement—item 1 in the stipulation—was that, should parishes leave the diocese, property held by the diocese itself would remain with “the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.”

It was never clear why Duncan agreed to the stipulation, though, after the schism, he vainly argued that the newly created “Anglican” diocese was the diocese referred to in the legal agreement. Predictably, he lost that argument, and Episcopalians retained endowments and real property owned by the diocese. This included a number of churches whose congregations left the diocese. (By all rights, Episcopalians should have been given all diocesan records and office equipment, but that didn’t happen.)

The stipulation further laid out—in its item 2—a procedure for negotiating the departure of a parish whose property was not owned by the diocese. This provision was never really put into practice. A number of parish properties have been returned to the Episcopal diocese voluntarily, both those owned and not owned by the diocese outright. A half dozen or so churches owned by the diocese but occupied by non-Episcopal congregations have been allowed to continue to operate with the understanding that they will maintain their buildings and keep them insured. The recent agreement covers nearly all the parishes that have title to their property that are members of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Agreement

What was published on February 28—available here—is an executive summary of the agreement between nine parishes and the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, along with an introduction to that summary agreed to by all parties (referred to as a “joint statement”). The actual agreement has not been published, and it may never be made public. It is unclear, however, why it should not be released.

A slight digression here: The introductory paragraph to the joint statement prefixed to the executive summary refers to “the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church in the United States.” This is similar to the designation that appears in the 2005 stipulation, namely, “the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.” Neither of these names is exactly right, and I cannot understand how lawyers cannot figure this out. The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh is part of  “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” or, if you prefer, “The Episcopal Church.” Whether, in either case, “the” should be capitalized is disputed. I have written several times about the proper of the name of our church. See, for example, here. End of digression.

The joint statement explains how the agreement was negotiated regarding “the respective rights, obligations[,] and expectations of the parties relative to the historic real and personal property of each of the Parishes.” It goes on to say that we’re all going to be nice and Christian toward one another and not engage in lawsuits. (More on this below.) Bishops of each diocese contributed conciliatory remarks. It is noted that certain “court and administrative approvals” will be necessary to put the agreement into effect.

The executive summary, which describes the actual agreement, is divided into five sections. The first, “A Distinctively Christian Compromise Resolution,” emphasizes Christian charity toward one another and says that the agreement does not constitute an admission of guilt.  (Cf. fines levied on corporations for various non-admitted infractions.)

The next section, “The Real and Personal Property,” provides critical definitions needed to understand what follows. Specifically, it distinguishes “Historic Property” from “Subsequently Acquired Property,” both real and personal, held by or for the benefit of a parish. Historic property is that held prior to the October 4, 2008, schism, including anything “acquired under the terms of a will or trust executed before” that date. Subsequently acquired property is everything else.

“How the Parties Will Relate to One Another and the Historic Property” is the longest section, and its intent is self-explanatory. The section begins with the affirmation that (1) the parishes own legal title to their property, (2) that the Episcopal diocese has a trust interest in the historic property, and (3) that the diocese renounces any interest in the subsequently acquired property.

The section goes on to say that the parishes can continue to use their properties and that, under rather vaguely specified circumstances, the Episcopal diocese may do so as well. However, the parishes must maintain and insure historic property and may not “lease, sell, assign their interests in, alter[,] or encumber” church buildings without permission from the diocese. “The Agreement specifies several factors or circumstances to be considered in the event of such a transaction [i.e., request to effect an otherwise prohibited action].” The executive summary does not specify what those several factors or circumstances are. Conditions of historic endowments and bequests must be respected, and the diocese maintains control over income and principle use. Again, the actual agreement, but not the executive summary, offers more specific restrictions and procedures. The diocese has the right to obtain sufficient information to assure that parishes are meeting their obligations.

Significantly, each parish is to pay an annual fee to the diocese equal to 3.25% of its operating revenue for the next 20 years. Thereafter, this fee decreases to 1.75% annually.

The agreement has provisions—again unstated in the executive summary—for handling the case of a parish wishing to relinquish its use of historic property. If it continues to use historic property and remains separate from the diocese—most likely in the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh—the agreement remains in effect, potentially in perpetuity.

Annual meetings between representatives of the diocese and each parish are mandated, as well as a meeting with any newly called rector.

The agreement provides procedures for dispute resolution, escalating from friendly discussion to litigation. The executive summary describes such procedures in a very general way.

The next section, “A Collective Agreement But Separate Contract,” explains that the agreement is to be construed as separate agreements between the diocese and each parish. Thus, a dispute between the diocese and a single parish does not affect the relationship between the diocese and other parishes.

The final section is titled “What Remains to Be Done.” All the principals have signed off on the agreement. A letter will be sought from the Pennsylvania attorney general stating that that office does not object to the agreement(s). Also, Judge Joseph James, who oversaw the litigation brought by Calvary and St. Stephen’s, will have to approve the agreement(s) in light of the aforementioned stipulation.

Analysis

The agreement mostly resolves the property issues remaining from the October 4, 2008, schism. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that agreements have not been reached by an additional three parishes, I believe these are Trinity, Beaver; Grace, Mt. Washington and Edgeworth;  and Trinity, Patton. (A call to the spokesperson for the diocese to verify this was not returned.) These are relatively small parishes. The most significant parishes, both in terms of real estate and number of members, are covered by the agreement, namely Ascension, Oakland, and St. Stephen’s Sewickley.

The most significant aspect of the agreement is its recognition by all parties of the trust interest of The Episcopal Church in the historic property, that is, an acknowledgment, perhaps implicit, of the applicability of the Dennis Canon, Canon I.7.4:
All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.
The diocese does not own the property in question, but that property is held in trust for the church. Many of the restrictions set forth in the agreement also apply to parishes that are members of the diocese.  For example, a parish of the diocese cannot sell real property that it owns without diocesan permission. It seems unlikely that the Dennis Canon could be used to require that any of the parish parties to the agreement surrender their historic property. That annual payments to the diocese are to be made, however, clearly establishes that the properties are being used to the benefit of the diocese and wider church.

Although the diocese would, in some respects, have preferred that the parishes, including their parishioners, return to the diocese, it was clear that that was not going to happen anytime soon. Certainly  regaining the buildings without parishioners would have been something of a liability, even though some of the buildings (or the land beneath them) are quite valuable. The agreement essentially creates a repository of property that the diocese may be able to use sometime in the future. (Parishes may grow tired of paying the annual fee or may even decide to return to The Episcopal Church, particularly if the Anglican Church in North America fails to flourish.) Although the diocese would likely have received more money from the parishes in assessments had they remained in the fold, it should be able to cover administrative costs and perhaps receive some real income from the agreement.

What the diocese got, therefore, is a recognition of the Dennis Canon, preservation of the property, and some small amount of income. It avoided what could have been substantial and continuing legal costs, though some future legal costs are to be expected. The diocese no doubt will have earned some goodwill in the Anglican world for not having pursued litigation to a final conclusion.

It is something of a surprise that the parishes admitted the trust interest of The Episcopal Church, but that probably seemed a small price to conclude litigation and achieve some stability. Maintaining historic property is something the parishes would have wanted to do anyway, and the diocese has made no claim on subsequently acquired property. (That would have been a stretch, in any case.)  Presumably, the agreement will allow parishes to renovate, expand, and even sell property. It is not specified—at least in the summary—under what circumstances this will be allowed, but the diocese has indeed shown more forbearance toward those who left than has been shown elsewhere. (The diocese made it easier for clergy to return to The Episcopal Church, for example, and some have indeed returned.) The parishes, too, will save on legal bills. Their payments to the diocese are modest and will even be reduced after 20 years, at which point inflation may have made them insignificant.

The diocese had not insisted on being involved in the running of the parishes or the selection of its leaders. The provision to meet with new priests is only intended to assure that new clergy understand the ongoing agreement.

It is at least mildly interesting that the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh has no role in the agreement. From one point of view, this is not surprising, as the diocese no longer has a dispute with the Anglican entity. On the other hand, immediately after the 2008 schism, the Anglican diocese actively discouraged negotiations. The Anglican diocese has clearly given its blessing to this latest development, and it, too, gains stability from it.

One factor influencing the character of the agreement is the expressed reluctance of Judge James to countenance parishioners being ejected from their buildings. Additionally—I don’t know that this was considered explicitly—accepting congregations and their buildings back into the Episcopal diocese could have affected the theological orientation of the diocese in a direction of which most members of Episcopal parishes would not approve.

On the whole, I think the agreement is fair to all concerned. Of course, only time will tell if relations between the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and the parishes involved in the agreement will run smoothly. It will be interesting to observe what happens when there are disagreements, as invariably there will be. I do not think the agreement will have much influence over property disputes elsewhere, where circumstances differ from those of Pittsburgh.

An information meeting is being held tonight at the Church of the Redeemer, Squirrel Hill, to explain the settlement to interested parties. I will attend and report on anything of interest. Stand by.



5 comments:

  1. Two corrections: The three parishes not agreeing to the settlement were Grace, Mt Washington (Grace Edgeworth is now a separate Anglican parish and not part of the the negotiations) Trinity Beaver and Christ Church Brownsville. Brownsville has a large endowment but a very small congregation

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you David. Chancellor Andy Roman refused to answer which churches had yet to each an accommodation with the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

      Delete
    2. Lionel, your list is still not complete.

      JRG

      Delete
  2. That's strange, he refused to answer as I believe it was reported in the PPG or Trib the three that did not settle. I think transparancy is always the best way forward.

    ReplyDelete
  3. High quality from a trust worthy [url='http://www.perfectsunglasses.co.uk/']buy raybans sunglasses[/url]dealer? here can offer you the best in high quality, including fake ray ban, etc.

    ReplyDelete

Anonymous comments are not allowed. Gratuitous profanity or libelous statements will be removed. Comments will also be removed that include gratuitous links to commercial Web sites. Please stay on topic.