Friday, February 15, 2008

Vestries and the Law

More than one person has said to me, “Well, I’m on our vestry, but I’m afraid to challenge the priest when he says he’s going to take the parish to the Southern Cone.”

Or, “One of my friends is on the vestry of her parish, and she’s going to stay in TEC, but she’s certainly not going to say so in the meetings and get everyone mad at her.”

Or, “Well, if I speak up in vestry meetings in defense of TEC, I’m attacked for being pro-gay and accused of heresy. I don’t want to face that.”

Folks, you need to get a grip.

Serving on the vestry of your church isn’t like being elected to an elite club where everyone politely defers to one another and blindly follows the leader.

If you are a member of the vestry in a parish in the Diocese of Fort Worth, you need to be aware of your legal responsibilities, especially now as our bishop and Standing Committee are urging the diocese to take unlawful actions. Otherwise, you could find yourself facing serious legal and canonical consequences.

The term vestry comes to us from Great Britain. It referred to “the room next to the nave of the church where the sacred vessels and vestments were kept.” Those who conducted the parish business also used this room for meetings, and so that body became known as the vestry.

The vestry’s executive committee, as it were, it made up of the two wardens and the rector. The principle behind the structure of the vestry is the same as that of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion – ordered and distributed authority.

The duties of a vestry are outlined in the canons of The Episcopal Church [when the phrase “the Church” is used, it refers to The Episcopal Church]:
- Hold responsibility with the rector in promoting the spiritual welfare of the parish.
- Aid the Rector in the institution, conduct, and development of the program of the Church both within and without the Parish.
- Act as agent and legal representative in all matters concerning property: maintain the buildings and furnishings, maintain other property (rectory, parking lot, grounds, etc.), provide adequate insurance.
- Be responsible for the finances of the parish, raising money, prompt payment of salaries and bills, prudent care of trust funds, endowments and bequests, sale and transfer of securities and other assets, maintain records, annual report, budget (approve expenditures and recommend and approve salaries)
- Recruit, encourage, train, and guide candidates for Holy Orders
- Represent the parish in its relations with the Rector
- Serve as”Council of Advice" for the Rector when requested
- Elect a Rector if there is a vacancy

An attorney who consulted with a nearby diocese pointed out that all “Communicants of the Church who are elected as members of Vestries, Standing Committees or are other officers in this Diocese, have duties under both Canon law (National Canons, Title I, Canon 17, Section 8) and under our civil laws-- these are called “fiduciary duties.” Thus, all who occupy these offices of trust must exercise the duty of utmost good faith and loyalty to the Church--and ‘the Church’ means the national Episcopal Church, not just the diocese or the parish.

“Members of a parish, vestry members and diocesan officers cannot lawfully perform those duties when they are acting in their own personal interests or when they are acting against the best interests of a parish, a diocese or the National Church. A vestry has the duties of a Board of Directors of a corporation, and the members of the vestry are liable for violating their duties to the parish, which is a part of the national Church.

“It is also clear that bishops and priests are liable if they act contrary to the Constitution or Canons of the national Church and of the Diocese. Title IV of the National Canons provides for the trial of bishops and priests who violate the National Canons or their oaths as priests of the Church.

“No diocese has any right to act contrary to the national Church or its Constitution and Canons. A diocese is a creature of the national Church; it cannot deal with or negotiate with other bodies, such as the Anglican Communion; that is solely the duty, and right, of the national Church.”

As the attorney states: “A diocese is not a stand alone entity, but rather a constituent part of the Episcopal Church in the United States.”

The Diocese of Fort Worth was created by the national Church. It has a duty to adhere to the faith, worship, discipline and laws of the national Church.

Similarly, parishes and missions are parts of the national Church and must abide by the Constitution and Canons of the National Church and the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese.

When the diocese and parishes act as if they are independent entities that can do as they please, they are in danger of committing unlawful acts, which includes attempting to wrongfully take Church property, or passing resolutions which purport to authorize either the diocese or a parish to violate the law and property rights of the national Church.

Certainly Bp. Iker and those who wish to accompany him have the right to leave The Episcopal Church and to associate with whatever group they wish.

They do not have the right or power to take a diocese with them.

And, as the attorney quoted above concluded, vestry members who go along with the violation of their fiduciary duties are subject to both civil and criminal sanctions, just as the trust department of a bank is subject to both if and when it violates the trust agreement. The trust department cannot, unilaterally, decide that it will take the client's money and put it into a different trust benefiting someone different from the client.

1 comment:

Frank Miles said...

Dear Katie,

I sincerely hope you have sent your most recent comments in letter form to the Star-Telegram and every other newspaper in the diocese. It makes me so sad that the bishop and so many priests in Fort Worth are intimidating so many of the people in the pews. I shall pray for the people of the diocese. I shall pray that the bishop sees the error of his ways.

Frank Miles, formerly a parishioner at All Saints, now resident elsewhere.