Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hierarchy and Property

A friend sent me this story, which contains news of some interest here in the Diocese of Fort Worth, where our bishop has just posted an opinion from some lawyer that the Episcopal Church is not a hierarchical church. This is an important point because our bishop is trying to take property that belongs to the Episcopal Church with him when he leaves the Episcopal Church.

Here is the definition of hierarchy - 1: a division of angels 2 a: a ruling body of clergy organized into orders or ranks each subordinate to the one above it; especially : the bishops of a province or nation b: church government by a hierarchy.

The Episcopal Church is indeed not a division of angels. That's one of the reasons I love it. It acknowledges that we have to struggle with scripture, we have to work at being good, at doing the best job of living holy lives that we can.

But the Episcopal Church is indeed a hierarchical church. And our dioceses hold property in trust for the national church -- very much like the canons of the Presbyterian Church. See paragraph 7 of the news story.

This story available online.

Oklahoma court rules that Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery is
legal owner of Tulsa church’s property

2,600-member Kirk of the Hills sued in 2006 to keep
property when it left

by Jerry L. Van Marter
Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — An Oklahoma district court in Tulsa has ruled
that the Presbytery of Eastern Oklahoma
[] of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
is the legal owner of the property of breakaway Kirk of
the Hills, a 2,600-member congregation that bolted to the
Evangelical Presbyterian Church in August 2006.

In his Sept. 9 ruling, Judge Jefferson Sellers denied Kirk
of the Hills petition for a summary judgment and ordered
the church to “convey its real and personal property” to
the presbytery, as per the decision of the presbytery’s
administrative commission, which concluded in March 2007
that Kirk of the Hills was “in schism.”

Kirk of the Hills attorney John O'Connor told the Tulsa
World that the decision will be appealed.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” he said. Saying the
congregation was “disappointed but certainly not undone by
this,” Kirk co-pastor Tom Gray told the newspaper, “We are
hopeful that the Oklahoma Supreme Court will correct this

The judge issued a 20-day stay before any implementation of
the ruling.

The civil court litigation was initiated by Kirk of the
Hills after the congregation voted to affirm its
leadership’s decision to leave the PC(USA). The
congregation, the largest of several dozen congregations
that have voted to leave the 2.3 million-member
denomination in the last two years, has continued to meet
in the church building.

The court followed the “hierarchical deference” approach in
awarding the property to the presbytery, affirming the
trust clause in the PC(USA) Constitution, which holds that
all property is held in trust for the denomination.
Oklahoma has been considered a “hierarchical deference
jurisdiction since an Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling in 1973
involving Cimarron Presbytery and Westminster Presbyterian
Church of Enid, OK.

Dean Luthey, an attorney for the PC(USA), said hierarchical
deference means that in property disputes involving
churches, the state court will defer to the decision of the
church's legal system.

Craig Hoster, the presbytery’s attorney in the case, said,
“The court followed Oklahoma law. When a local church
participates in, prospers from and enjoys the benefits
afforded by the parent church, as has been the case here
for more than 40 years, it cannot then disclaim affiliation
when it disagrees with the parent body, so as to shield
church property from the equitable or contractual interests
of the parent church….The court affirmed the concept that
individuals may leave the church but they cannot take the
church property with them.”

The Rev. Greg Coulter, general presbyter for Eastern
Oklahoma Presbytery, said, “We are pleased with the
decision of the court to uphold the laws of the State of
Oklahoma and to recognize the extensive efforts that
Eastern Oklahoma Presbytery has taken to resolve the issues
in accordance with the ecclesiastical process to which we
have all submitted ourselves as officers and members of the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“At the same time,” Coulter said, “there is great sadness
over this division within the Body of Christ. We have
participated in no less than a dozen meetings with a
variety of representatives in an effort to resolve our
differences and find a reasonable settlement alternative to
the civil law suit initiated by The Kirk. All efforts,
including impartial mediation and an independent assessment
of the church property value, have been rebuffed by the
congregation’s leadership.

“Nevertheless, we will continue to work with our brothers
and sisters in Christ to resolve any remaining issues, and
we pray God’s blessings on all who labor in His name. There
has been much pain on all sides of the issues. It is our
prayer that healing may now begin.”

Hoster added, “We will now begin the orderly transition of
the church property to the presbytery.”


Tom Sramek, Jr. said...

If the Presbyterians are a hierarchical church, then TEC certainly is! If not, then clergy in the Diocese of Fort Worth should feel free to disobey their bishop. Ooops! That would be a violation of their ordination vows. Hmmmm....

Anonymous said...

Continuing prayers for your diocese, Katie (and many thanks).