Episcopal division expected to carry over to property dispute
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Early wrangling has begun in what will ultimately be a decision by a civil court over which Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh inherits the property of the diocese that voted Oct. 4 to secede from the Episcopal Church into the more theologically conservative Anglican Province of the Southern Cone in South America.
The Episcopal Church has recognized a remnant of about 20 churches that refused to secede with more than 50 others. Both sides claim to be "The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America" that in 2005 signed a legal stipulation saying that it owned diocesan property. The same stipulation said parishes wishing to disassociate from that diocese could apply to it for parish property. This week the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh (Anglican) wrote to churches aligned with the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, telling them to apply to the Anglican diocese for their property.
That's backward, said the Rev. James Simons, president of the Standing Committee governing the Episcopal diocese until it elects an interim bishop.
"It's a bit like Alice in Wonderland," he said of the Anglican claim to be the diocese named in the court stipulation.
"That stipulation specifically says that it's about parishes wanting to leave 'the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America,'" he said.
"By their own decision, they are no longer a part of the Episcopal Church of the United States, which is what the stipulation is about."
But Robert Devlin, chancellor of the Anglican diocese and author of the letter, said the language in the stipulation refers to the diocese that signed it in 2005, meaning the diocese that voted to join the Southern Cone.
"The entity that adopted the resolutions [to realign] on Saturday is the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh," he said. "All of those parishes are part of the diocese. We are not saying they have to stay with us. We are pointing out that the stipulation ... requires every parish in the diocese that wants to disaffiliate to apply to the diocese."
The Episcopal diocese is advising its churches not to respond. "The Court of Common Pleas, not Mr. Devlin, will decide the meaning of the court's order," said instructions on its Web site.
Another section of Mr. Devlin's letter drew even more ire from the Episcopal side, though Mr. Devlin said his words were misinterpreted. A paragraph on diocesan health insurance said that premiums are paid through parish assessments, and that parishes that no longer pay assessments to the Anglican diocese "need to promptly schedule a time to discuss your parish's continued participation in various diocesan insurance plans."
The Rev. Simons said it appeared to be a threat to cancel insurance, months after diocesan leaders had told him they would administer plans for both dioceses. Mr. Devlin said he did not intend any threat, but meant to tell parishes that they need to find a new way to pay.
"The bishop said early on that we have to work with both sides to administer things as fairly as we can. But I can't do that in the absence of information," he said.
First Published October 11, 2008 12:00 am