By Kirk Petersen
After years of conflict, the Anglican and Episcopal dioceses of Pittsburgh have taken a giant step toward resolving most of their remaining property disputes. Control of church buildings has been a matter of dispute since 2008, when bishop Robert Duncan and a majority of the congregations in the Pittsburgh diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal diocese and nine congregations of the Anglican diocese announced on Feb. 28 “a distinctively Christian compromise resolution” in which the Anglican congregations will retain the ownership and use of their church buildings, while paying an annual assessment to the Episcopal diocese. The assessment will be 3.25 percent of operating revenues for the first 20 years, and 1.75 percent thereafter.
The agreement establishes Pittsburgh as the clear leader in reconciliation efforts among the five dioceses that voted a decade ago to leave the Episcopal Church. The other dioceses that voted to secede are Fort Worth, Quincy, San Joaquin, and South Carolina.
In Pittsburgh, litigation after the 2008 secession established that there were two categories of churches among those leaving: about a dozen churches that held legal title to the church property, and a larger group whose property was “held or administered by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh … for the beneficial use of the parishes.”
A Pennsylvania court ruled in October 2009 that properties occupied by the larger group must be turned over to the Episcopal diocese. When the state Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in 2011, the Anglican diocese chose not to pursue the matter further. That led to nearly seven years of continued disputes over the churches that held title to their property.
Because there is finally an agreement after years of conflict, all parties are wary of straying beyond the carefully negotiated executive summary of the agreement.
Kristen Parise, communications director of the Anglican diocese, confirmed that a small number of similar title-holding churches declined to join the agreement, but would not identify the churches or say how many there were. She said that information would need to come from Bishop James Hobby, who did not respond to a request to identify the churches.
Rich Creehan, communications director of the Episcopal diocese, declined to provide information beyond the executive summary and letter released Feb. 28. When asked for a copy of the entire agreement, he said that would remain confidential.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that three churches declined to join the agreement, but was unable to identify them. In an extensive search of online court records, TLC was unable to find a list of churches in the category that held clear title to their buildings.
The Rev. Jonathan Millard, a member of the Anglican negotiating team, also declined to identify the three holdout churches, but did provide some information about the process. Millard is rector of Church of the Ascension in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, which is one of the parties to the agreement.
“This wasn’t just about money and buildings,” he told TLC. “It was more like trying to find a way through a divorce.”
“There was a lot of honesty and humility in the room. It was palpable,” he said.
“The intent going into it was to try to find a creative solution to our differences,” said the Rev. Kris Opat, part of the Episcopal negotiating team. “It was more coming from a gospel standpoint. It was more important to try to find a way for us all to move forward, as opposed to [trying to] win.”
He said that for years “there was this narrative … [of] ‘the big bad evil Episcopal Church.’ A lot of my energy went into trying to disabuse anyone of that idea. We definitely have differences, we disagree on a number of very important points, but at the end of the day I still consider them Christians.” He added that he wants the Anglicans “to be able to pursue what God’s called them to do as best as they can.”
Millard said that when the negotiating teams made opening statements in the first mediation session in September 2017, “the tone of those statements was such that I think it cut through the fear and anxiety.”
There are some potential landmines in the agreement, and sticking to it will require good faith on the part of all parties.
The biggest issue is that the nine Anglican churches have agreed to pay part of their revenues to the Episcopal diocese, in perpetuity. The assessment will decline after 20 years from 3.25 percent to 1.75 percent, but there is no end date for the reduced assessment. This recognizes that despite the formal ownership of the titles, “the Episcopal Diocese has beneficial (that is, trust beneficiary) rights” in the church buildings, according to the agreement.
At the same time, the nine churches also will be expected to pay an annual assessment to their Anglican diocese. Parise said she did not know the amount of the expected Anglican assessment, nor whether the Episcopal assessment would be considered part of, or in addition to, the Anglican assessment.
Future leaders of the nine churches undoubtedly will chafe at the dual assessment, especially during any time of budget pressure. As a practical matter, many churches in most dioceses fall short of the expected assessment, which varies from diocese to diocese.
The nine churches have agreed not to sell or lease their church properties without consent of the Episcopal diocese, and have agreed that “the Episcopal diocese may make use of the Parish historic church buildings to meet pastoral needs consistent with the shared history,” of the parties.
The Anglican diocese is not technically a party to the agreement — only the nine churches. Hobby was not involved in the negotiations, but as bishop diocesan, he presumably could have vetoed the agreement. He instead endorsed it as “quite remarkable, given the litigious culture in which we live.”
Hobby was elected Anglican Bishop of Pittsburgh in 2016, which undoubtedly helped pave the way for the agreement. His predecessor, Bishop Duncan, was a national leader and spokesman for what became the Anglican Church in North America. After being expelled by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, he was named the first archbishop of the ACNA, while continuing to serve as the Anglican Bishop of Pittsburgh. Duncan retired as archbishop in 2014 and as head of the Pittsburgh diocese in 2016.
Millard noted that since the split “there were many changes in leadership. There was a new presiding bishop, there was a new Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, and there was a new Anglican Bishop of Pittsburgh.” He added, “when you change all of the key headline players, that has to make a difference.”
Hobby has made strides toward a closer relationship with the Episcopal diocese, which has been headed by Bishop Dorsey McConnell since 2012. When the Episcopal Church leadership spent three days in Pittsburgh for a February 2017 revival, Hobby attended a portion of the event.
There have been few similar signs of reconciliation among the other dioceses that seceded from the Episcopal Church.
Most recently, in mid-February the Anglican diocese in South Carolina petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court in a bid to overturn an adverse ruling by the state Supreme Court. The Anglican diocese claims ownership of the name Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, a claim that was affirmed in a separate lawsuit. The Episcopal diocese uses the name Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
In Fort Worth, both dioceses identify themselves as the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.
The tiny remainder of the already-small Episcopal Diocese of Quincy was absorbed by the Diocese of Chicago. Two property lawsuits have outlived the diocese.
San Joaquin is the smallest of the four remaining Episcopal dioceses and has struggled the hardest financially. In October 2017, the Episcopal Church forgave $5.8 million in loans that had been made over the years to the diocese. After a decade of being led by three successive provisional bishops, the third one (Bishop David Rice) was elected bishop diocesan in March 2017.