Bishop Mark Lawrence, in an interview with The Living Church, opined that “For 190 years, no one imagined that parishes did not own their property, yet they were connected to the Episcopal Church through the bishop. The parishes provide the bishop’s chair and the bishop brings the crozier.”
That sounds nice, but what in the world does it mean? The reference to 190 years is to the time from the Constitution of The Episcopal Church (1789) to the time of the passage of the Canon I.7.4 in 1979. There is considerable legal opinion that Canon I.7.4 makes explicit what was previously covered by canon 47. Here is Canon 47:
The former Canon 47 and the current Canon I.7.4 seem to indicate that churches are not to be "alienated from those who profess and practise the Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship of this Church"(meaning The Episcopal Church). The church is held in trust for the ecclesial body called The Episcopal Church. Property can, of course, be let go, but only by consent of the Bishop and Standing Committee. The holder of the deed may be the parish, but as far as the church is concerned it is held in trust for people of this Church.
So Bishop Lawrence, believing that absolute authority to dispose of church property resides with the vestries of parishes, has set out to relinquish whatever legal claim he had on the the disposition of church property, on behalf of the diocese or The Episcopal Church. He is using what is called a quitclaim deed to give over to the vestries whatever legal claims there may be to the properties.
The Bishop apparently feels that he doesn't have a claim on these properties anyway and that the quitclaim deed is a way to make that clear. But of course if canons going a long way back do indeed make change in use of the Church dependent on his approval, and if the Church is understood to be held in trust for members of The Episcopal Church, then he does have responsibilities for the proper disposition of the property in accordance with canons of the Church.
This action on Bishop Lawrence's part seems clearly to be in disregard of the canons of the Church, canons which he has vowed to uphold as part of the "Doctrine, Discipline and Worship" of The Episcopal Church. If he didn't want to do thing, perhaps he should not have accepted the office of Bishop. But he did and he is thus bound by the canonical proposition that he is required to hold churches in trust for the people of the Church, and if such property is to be disposed of to first seek the assent of the Standing Committee and then remove it from church use. He is not, in this read, simply able to hand over his trust responsibilities to the parish vestry in a quitclaim deed.
This is going to add to his troubles regarding possible charges. Well, there it is.
What is sad is his comment, "(parishes) were connected to the Episcopal Church through the bishop. The parishes provide the bishop’s chair and the bishop brings the crozier.” The notion that the connection is that when the bishop visits they offer him a chair and he brings the symbol of being their pastor. So, suppose a parish vestry decides to leave The Episcopal Church:Do they throw out the chair? Do they suggest that the Bishop leave his crozier at the door, as if it were a loaded weapon?
No. I am afraid what the bishop suggests is that a congregation might leave The Episcopal Church, that they might keep the chair and invite him to come visit with his crozier and sit in that chair, and that he would be their bishop quite outside the context of The Episcopal Church. Or, for that matter, they might stay in The Episcopal Church and do the same. Either way they bring the chair, he brings the crozier and that's enough. Too bad about the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of The Episcopal Church.
This thing will do him no good. One day he will visit a parish where they will indeed invite him in to sit, crozier and all, and he will wonder just where he is. And when, crozier in hand, he attempts to provide sound teaching, preaching and sacramental offices, they find him objectionable, they will throw him out. After all the chair is theirs, the church is theirs, and he may have a crozier, but he is not their shepard.