Property Dispute Indicates Widening Church Gap

A local Episcopal parish that is defending its property against a claim from the Episcopal Church is filing a brief in a similar California case.

The Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont filed an amicus brief in a case against St. James Anglican Church Newport Beach, where the local Episcopal diocese is claiming St. James' property because the church withdrew from communion with the Episcopal Church.

The amicus, or friend of the court filing, outlines Good Shepherd's side of the Montgomery County dispute for the court's benefit. St. James has appealed a previous ruling of the California Supreme Court to the Supreme Court of the U.S.

"We see our amicus brief for St. James, Newport Beach as an act of witness to our parish motto – non ministrari, sed ministrare – not to be ministered unto, but to minister," said Bishop David Moyer, the rector at Good Shepherd. Bishop Moyer added that the brief was filed out of "thanksgiving for the many blessings we have received from near and far in our struggles for the Gospel and the Catholic religion."

Earlier this year, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania filed an action in the Montgomery County Orphan's Court to claim Good Shepherd’s real estate. The diocese asserts that the property “is held in trust for the Episcopal Church and the Diocese,” and accuses Bishop Moyer and the Good Shepherd Vestry of acting outside the discipline of the church. The case against Good Shepherd is unprecedented, since in other property disputes with the Episcopal Church around the country, the parish in question has left the church, but continued to hold the property. Good Shepherd has never left the Episcopal Church, the foundation for the diocese's argument in the property case.

"I think probably the first thing to recognize here is that in many of these cases around the country these cases are dealing with a parish or diocese that has withdrawn from the Episcopal Church," said Paul Danello, a lawyer with Baker and Daniels, a law firm in Washington that is defending Good Shepherd.

Mr. Danello said that much of the Episcopal Church's argument rests on canons that were unilaterally imposed on the parishes.

The Church of the Good Shepherd was founded in 1869 in Wayne, Pennsylvania. The parish was incorporated and admitted to the Diocese of Pennsylvania shortly thereafter. At first services were held in community halls and public school buildings as the search for a suitable location proceeded. In 1872 land was bought on the north side of Lancaster Avenue in Villanova, and a church was built. The current church building was built in 1894 in Rosemont.

Good Shepherd was founded under the influence of the Oxford Movement, a 19th Century movement in Anglicanism that placed emphasis on the sacraments, holiness of life, and outreach and service to those less fortunate.

There has been no ruling in the Good Shepherd case, and both Mr. Danello and a spokesperson for the Diocese of Pennsylvania said they are waiting for word from the court. However, leaders at Good Shepherd said that the current disputes over property are signs of much more important issues at play in the Anglican Communion.

In recent years, the Episcopal Church has acted as a lightning rod surrounding the understanding and interpretation of religion. An uproar arose in the Communion over the 2004 ordination of Bishop Gene Robinson, as the ninth bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire and the first openly gay Episcopal bishop.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has led an Anglican Communion increasingly split between a push for legitimizing homosexuality and strict interpretation of biblical prohibitions of it. The Episcopal Church ignored Archbishop Williams' pleas for restraint, instead opting to accept gay bishops and adopt a ritual to bless gay unions. Less than two weeks later, several openly gay candidates had been nominated to serve as bishops in dioceses around the country.

A group of bishops boycotted the once-a-decade Lambeth Conference last summer, opting to hold a rival conference instead. The Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON) endorsed the traditional religion, including the primacy of scripture and the Apostle's Creed. Since GAFCON, a number of parishes have split from the Episcopal Church and joined a rival communion, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). ACNA is hoping for communion with Canterbury.

"You have this huge chasm that exists in the Anglican Communion right now," said Bishop Moyer. "The Anglican Communion really doesn't exist anymore as a communion because there is not common faith and common order. The whole thing is imploded. It's like people are going in opposite directions at a faster rate than ever before. Conservative Anglicans have bound themselves together for strength, and other Anglicans are looking outside the Anglican world. ACNA has said 'we will preserve Anglicanism as we understand it.' And others are saying that Anglicanism must be in communion with something much bigger and much larger."

In the middle of the rising tide in the Episcopal Church, Good Shepherd's leaders are feeling the brunt of pressure from the Episcopal Church concerned with keeping its property amidst growing defection by conservatives. At first blush, the Episcopal Church's arguments are simply that of a diocese trying to oust ineligible leadership at an innocent parish. But Mr. Danello said that the interior issues of the church have now inappropriately found their way into a civil court.

"What we have here is a civil case that could potentially end up in Pennsylvania Supreme Court," said Mr. Danello. "Who's entitled to hold office, priestly and Episcopal ordination, these are the kinds of issues that most people look at and say [that] this isn't for a civil court to decide. To present these issues under the camouflage of a property dispute seems to us to be an abuse of the civil court system."

The most prominent point of contention for the diocese appears to be Bishop Moyer, who ran afoul of Bishop Charles Bennison about six years ago, leading to his deposition amid accusations that he abandoned the church. Bishop Moyer was immediately received into the province of central Africa and transferred to the Diocese of Pittsburgh. In anticipation of the deposition, both the present and past Archbishops of Canterbury said Bishop Moyer would be accepted into the Church of England as a priest in good standing.

"[The diocesan dispute] is a theological issue," said Bishop Moyer. "The Episcopal Church holds a revisionist system concerning doctrinal matters. We uphold what the church has taught for centuries. These doctrinal issues are ones where there is a broad sweep of the Anglican Communion [to be considered]. The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania has taken on to itself to be the sole arbiter of these issues. We're not doing anything wrong. We're loyal, faithful sons and daughters. We're just trying to be a church. The Diocese of Pennsylvania says they don't like the way we're being a church."

Bishop Moyer said that people in the pews are being alienated because of the way the diocese is pursuing its case, and seemed saddened at the prospect of the parish being forced from its church.

"The people here are the Anglo-Catholic parish on the main line," he said. "We have a unique history and heritage. People are drawn here for that reason. If this church was removed from this building, I don't think they'd be successful in founding another Episcopal parish here, because there are already many Episcopal parishes on the main line."

In 1989, the parish affiliated with the Episcopal Synod of America, now called Forward in Faith North America, and is now one of several parishes in the Diocese of Pennsylvania that are so affiliated.

"Good Shepherd belongs in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of worship, teaching, mission, and has remained steadfast in Christian orthodoxy since its founding," reads the parish's website. "Two basic pillars of parish life have been Catholic worship and Christian outreach."

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