More Episcopal News – Church of Good Shepherd Rosemont

Back in my Philadelphia days I attended Episcopal churches for some years.

It is the Iron Law of humanity, I would say, that when enough people get together, some kind of politics is bound to assert itself. And you just hope it’s of the beneficient kind. And not some nasty, drag-down unpleasant mess.

When it comes to lawyering, it usually quickly goes to the latter. Which again, is why I say I made short career of lawyering. (But have to include it on the resume!)

Like I was referring in my earlier post this month, I got to know quite a bit more than anyone should even care to about the nasty politics going on for several decades now in the Episcopal Church in the Philadelphia area, the so-named either “Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania” or “Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania”.

(Yes, the denomination has two names. See what you are getting into?)

The Episcopal Church on its face holds out a certain attraction for brought-up Catholics who decide they are not comfortable with things in the Roman Catholic religion. I wouldn’t want to set off Holy War, and certainly my Sitemeter counter fortunately doesn’t even make that a threat. But as modernity and religion have interacted over the last 500 years, it isn’t like God or science has won “hands down”. But when you start to think a bit more deeply about Abrahamic religion, it isn’t quite as clear cut as many of the traditional denominations make it.

I keep an open mind. But I am going to have a critical eye to 475-year-old religious regulations, (“fish on Friday oops not now”), social comportment rules a large majority of the followers don’t even follow, and things like that. So I will always be in a sense “protestant” even if I was baptized Catholic. (I think a plurality of American Catholics are this way in fact.)

This was my thinking for hanging with the Episcopalians.

Where the Catholic Church is sometimes a contest or challenge of belief in myth and denial of reality, the modern Episcopal Church is more like a perpetual “Culture War”, a Smack Down cage fight, no breaks.

Two adherents enter, one adherent leaves!

With the advent of the Internet, I have been able to follow the action as it has developed there over the last fifteen years. Quite often it is legal action.

What has come to pass is that the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania has been losing followers to the both the exit door and the Grim Reaper. And therefore financially starting to circle the drain. What money it does have is locked up in parish trust fund accounts, put there by the Daddy Warbucks / Pennsylvania banking and industrial magnates of the 19th century.

Or even Daddy Smallbucks who had it invested right and let the power of compounding work its magic for 100 years.

And the parishes with the dough have, like trust fund babies tend to, become a little eccentric and much bit more “I must have my way” about things.

An Episcopal parish is governed by a vestry, which is a corporate board of directors. The minister or priest of the parish is hired by the vestry and works for it. Since the work is the work of the Lord, the priest’s work is in ministering to the parish. The denomination is governed by canons, but unlike the Roman Catholics, it is a “bottom up” hierarchy. (I was blogging about this the other day.)

The parishes affiliate with the larger governing structure, the Diocese, and the Diocese in turn is affiliated with the national Episcopal denomination.

So you have these multimillion dollar kitties, controlled by lay persons, affiliated with a denomination where there are tugs and pulls on many of these “culture war” issues (rights of women in the church, about gay people and sexuality in general, abortion and human life science, etc.)

And at the same time, a battle about who can legally position themselves the best to grab at the money if they are so inclined! Vestries? Who tend to be rank-and-file and have home court advantage? Or officials of the hierarchy? (In denominations where no one who set up the original property structures even foresaw the modern era . . . )

What is going on in Pennsylvania this year is that the Diocese has decided to grab the Church of Good Shepherd Rosemont (I think they might have $20 million).

Read about it here: online article in “Episcopal Life” Episcopal strife – maybe

The Diocese’s own website post: The Pennsylvania Episcopalian Online (March 20) “online and in court”

Defending in the battle is the Rosemont parish (of my blog caption above):

Good Shepherd Rosemont commentary – “the good old days”

Now, this is where I need for you, good reader, to pay attention: Because there has been previous litigation in the 50,000 member Episcopal diocese in Pennsylvania.

AND the Philadelphia area where that diocese is, is also home to the much much bigger Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, so the neighborhood tends to elect a lot of Roman Catholic judges.

AND when the litigation makes its way into court, the judges–elected, remember–don’t want to make any decisions that would cause a controversial headline.

Furthermore, unless you carefully explain that “Bishop” in the Episcopal Church does not have the exact same powers as “Bishop” as in John Cardinal Krol or Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the judge’s decision is going to be a very Roman Catholic one: Whatever the Bishop wants the Bishop gets—“after all, he’s the Bishop, right?”

It’s patently unfair to all the protestant denominations that set themselves up as an allegiance of parishes with limited, governing oversight. Like how America is a federation of states with a powerful, but limited, federal government. The President cannot come into New Jersey and tell John Corzine what to do for New Jersey unless the President has been given the power.

Similarly, the powers as developed in the (remember!) Protestant Episcopal Church work on the same theory. The vestry has specific written duties, parish priest has them and the bishop has them.

But even one more thing: I also need to point out that the Pennsylvania Diocese currently does NOT have a real bishop. The Bishop, Charles Bennison, was suspended for helping his brother to cover up some teenage sex scandal the brother had in 1974. So a group of individuals called “Standing Committee” is the Bishop (technically the “ecclesiastical authority”).

I think they brought back the former bishop, now an octogenarian, on a kind-of ad hoc contract basis, like a Temp Bishop (“ClergyTemps” maybe). But it isn’t clear that he has his powers back.

Now that there have been previous cases where the (most always) Roman Catholic judges have ruled in favor of the Bishop, the Diocese is getting greedy and going for the land grab and the $20 million. This with the backing of earlier cases where one lawyer on one side of the case needed a mysterious and all-powerful Episcopal bishop in order to win.

And it’s not that Roman Catholic judges in Pennsylvania are stupid dolts that can understand legal subtleties. But honestly—again they’re elected judges in a heavily Roman Catholic state—I don’t think they try to hard on subtle religious society questions. (Just wait until they have to decide the Singh v. Singh‘s in Pennsylvania.)

There have been a number of these cases that have whittled away at the Neutral Principles of Law basis of Episcopal Church canons. The canons are clearly written so that there are few if any “ecclesiastical issues” of church governance involved. But the judges have ignored that aspect.

Here are a few: Frederick W. Gundlach v. Barry E.B. Swain et al., 91 F.3d 123 (3d Cir. 1996)

In re: Church of St. James the Less (Pa. Commw. 2005) (Takes a while to download, and it’s the intermediate appellate court decision.)

Attorney Valerie Munson (now of St. Thomas University) did a lot to bring that legal error to life in Pennsy.

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