Saturday, April 5, 2008

What is a church?

The continuing Anglicans of Virginia who formed CANA have won round #1 in their property fight. Certainly continuing Anglicans around North America are celebrating this victory, even if many rounds of appeals remain.

In reading the hometown news articles — in the Washington Post and Washington Times — I was struck by a fundamental question: what is a church? Here are some of the critical quotes from the latter story:
"We are obviously disappointed in yesterday's ruling," said a statement from Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori about the 83-page decision released late Thursday night.

The decision "plainly deprives the Episcopal Church and the Diocese, as well as all hierarchical churches, of their historic constitutional rights to structure their polity free from governmental interference," she said, "and thus violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced."


Henry Burt, diocesan spokesman, suggested the ruling imperils religious freedom.

"At issue is the government"s ability to intrude into the freedom of the Episcopal Church and other churches to organize and govern themselves according to their faith and doctrine," he said.

In a letter to members of the diocese posted on, Virginia Bishop Peter Lee said the 11 churches are still "wrongfully occupying Episcopal Church property" but that "this was not a final decision and the court did not award any property or assets."

Doug Smith, executive director for the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy in Richmond, called the judge's decision "chilling," adding leaders of other mainline denominations represented by his center are "gravely concerned."

"It seems that government is attempting to take over governance of the Episcopal Church," he said. "This preliminary ruling puts every hierarchical denomination on notice that a group of persons who no longer wish to be part of the particular denomination can now split off, form a new group, self-declare they are a branch of the original group and assert rights under law regardless of the denomination's own rules."
Of course, some of this is pure nonsense. The government is not “intruding” — it was, after all, TEC that asked the government to get involved in enforcing a property rights dispute. I’m a firm believer of freedom of religion, but the government retains a clear role in enforcing certain secular rules (such as who owns what property and who owns who what money).

But fundamentally, the TEC apologists make a claim that might be true in England, but not here. A state church is the norm in much of Europe, but a major motivation for the initial settlement of New England was religious freedom.

Also, the leadership of PECUSA is elected and not appointed — suggesting a bottom-up, American view of governance. If churches are voluntary associations of individuals, how does TEC assert a right to tell individual branches what to do — particularly since those branches provided the resources to create their branches?

Finally, the national church doesn’t legal title to the resources — the PECUSA model until recently was a confederation of bishoprics. In dioceses where the bishop holds the title to land, the legal options for the seceders are more difficult, but for much (most) of Protestant America, the individual parish is what a “church” is.

1 comment:

jleecbd said...

Even for most Protestants, I would imagine the building is not the Church. What has, perhaps, been forgotten by those on the East coast were the days when they really didn't have a building. The building is not the Church, the people are.

Although the TEC is steeped in heresy in general, the saddest thing so far has been the property disputed. A complete lack of charity is on display. Perhaps someone should send Katharine a recording of Ubi Caritas.