10/20/2007

Fort Worth, Canons on Property, and Legal Needs

Jesus says, "Be watchful!" Not easy to do when the matters at hand are dry as a bone sucked of marrow and left to bleach just out of reach behind the couch. But this is not the time to get distracted. People in the Diocese of Fort Worth and other dissenter hotspots are being told that no matter the national canons on the matter, Diocesan and / or parish leadership can take property belonging to the Episcopal Church with them if and when they leave. Such is the case in the Diocese of Fort Worth, where the Chancellor of the Diocese, The Honorable William T. McGee, recently wrote an opinion concerning "HOW REAL PROPERTY IS HELD WITHIN THE DIOCESE OF FORT WORTH."

He begins by stating, "In the early 1980s, a decision was made to carve a new Diocese – the Diocese of Fort Worth – from the old Diocese of Dallas. It would include Tarrant County and 23 other western and neighboring counties." According to the Diocese of Fort Worth, the date was 1983.

Several things to note:

If Fort Worth became a Diocese in 1983 it was admitted by General Convention in 1982 meeting in New Orleans. This is in accord with Article V of the Constitution which states, "After consent of the General Convention, when a certified copy of the duly adopted Constitution of the new Diocese, including an unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of this Church, shall have been filed with the Secretary of the General Convention and approved by the Executive Council of this Church, such new Diocese shall thereupon be in union with the General Convention."

The Constitution and Canons to which the new Diocese gave "unqualified accession" included text included in resolution D-024, General Convention 1979, Denver.

"Resolved, That Title I, Canon 6 of the Canons of the Episcopal Church, be amended to add a Section 4 as follows:
Sec. 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 on 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 ;
and be it further
Resolved, That Title I, Canon 6 be amended to add a Section 5 as follows:
Sec. 5. The several Dioceses may, at their election, further confirm the trust declared under the foregoing Section 4 by appropriate action, but no such action shall be necessary for the existence and validity of the trust ;
and be it further
Resolved, That Title II, Canon 7 be amended to add a new Section 3 as follows:
Sec. 3. Any dedicated and consecrated Church or Chapel shall be subject to the trust declared with respect to real and personal property held by any Parish, Mission, or Congregation, as set forth in Section 4 of Title I, Canon 6 ;
and be it further
Resolved, That this resolution shall be effective upon enactment."

So the Diocese of Fort Worth was formed after the so called Dennis Canon was put in place and knew from the start that unqualified accession to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church included this provision.

The Chancellor of Fort Worth notes that Canon 18, concerning Church Property has been revised since first written. The Canons page on the Diocese website notes the last changes in 1989. Section 4 in particular contains the phrase, "No adverse claim to such beneficial interest by The Episcopal Church of the United States of America is acknowledged, but rather is expressly denied" twice, once in reference to the beneficiary use of property and institutions,(where the Corporation and the Diocese are also excluded) and once in reference to the tax status of such property and institutions.

The text does not state that the Episcopal Church canon regarding property is invalid. It clarifies that property held in trust for the work of the parish or institution must benefit the parish or institution. Interestingly the text makes reference to "The Episcopal Church of the United States of America." That is, of course, not the name of the entity known as The Episcopal Church. The Constitution begins by naming the church: "The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, otherwise known as The Episcopal Church (which name is hereby recognized as also designating the Church)… So in one regard, at least, the Canons of the Diocese of Fort Worth miss the mark by missing the name.

The point, however, is that the canon does not directly contravene the meaning of the national church canon on property. It leaves as uncharted territory the matter of whether holding in trust various properties "beneficially to such Parish, Mission or Diocesan School only" means to the clergy, vestry and people currently incumbent to the parish, etc, or to the parish, etc as institution. It remains unclear what happens if clergy and a majority of parishioners wish to leave the diocese. Do they get to take the property?

We also don't have any information about just why the changes took place and whether or not those changes were in any way judged to be in conformance with the national canons.

What we do know is that the Diocese of Fort Worth became part of the Episcopal Church with the property canon in place and did not at that time make any reservation contrary to the canons.

The Chancellor's statement offers no resolution to the property matter, but rather states that all property is held in trust by the Corporation of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. The relation of that Corporation to the Diocese, as part of the Episcopal Church, is unclear.

What does seem clear is that the Corporation, if it exists to circumvent the accession to the canons of the Episcopal Church, places the Diocese in violation of its unequivocal accession to the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church. There is nothing to show one way or another that this is the case.

The Chancellor's statement was widely broadcast on the internet. It has been understood as a statement in support of the Corporation having ultimate decision making control of the property provided that control is in benefit of the "parish, mission or diocesan school." The question is, can it do so separate from the expressed determination of the canons of the Episcopal Church that property is held ultimately for the Episcopal Church to exercise in trust for the individual parish, etc?

The intention of the Chancellor was to provide clarification. I think he has. We now know it is a corporation that holds the property in trust for the benefit of local parishes, etc. What this means in terms of the national canons I don't know, but I suspect it involves lawyers and money to find out.

Contrary to the popular belief that Christians ought not get involved in lawsuits, it is interesting to note that in order to get things legally clarified in Fort Worth the Diocese a suit was brought to make uniform the inclusion of all properties in the new diocese in the corporation.

It may take lawsuits to get things clarified yet again. Acting as a Corporation the leadership of the diocese might very well attempt to dispose of all of its property by ceding it to a new entity, say the Orthodox Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, claiming this was indeed beneficiary to the parishes, missions and diocesan schools. This is clearly not what the national church canons have in mind and not what many loyal Episcopalians in Fort Worth have in mind either.

So the question is, if lawyers and money are needed (thank God guns are not needed – Warren Zevon to the contrary) who will send them? A plea for help has gone out from Episcopalians in Fort Worth. From where will help come? I believe the matter needs to be address quickly and help sent.

I will be doing my part.


2 comments:

  1. John-Julian, OJN20/10/07 8:52 PM

    Dead right, Mark.

    I understand that the Powers-that-be have felt it was necessary to wait until a specific action was taken which could be solid grounds for presentment, but my heart breaks when I hear the pleas from the minority faithful who feel abandoned (or at least feel that they are not being supported). I sure hope that the legal minds (and pocketbooks) at 815 have a master plan ready to apply SOON....or at least that they might reassure the faithful that they are not standing alone.

    And I'm frustrated because I can't think of anything I can do to help -- except to pray for those suffering folk.

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  2. Mark, you say, "I will do my part." But like Brother John-Julian, I don't know what the heck I can do. The only idea I've been able to conceive is establishing a legal defence fund for the Via Media groups, but that's nothing I can do on my own. What are you planning to do?

    ReplyDelete

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