By Kirk Petersen
David Booth Beers, who for more than a decade led the Episcopal Church’s litigation strategy in property disputes with departing dioceses and parishes, died April 3 after a brief illness. He was 86.
St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Washington, where Beers and his wife Peggy worshiped for more than half a century, will hold a funeral service at 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 9, which will be livestreamed.
Beers served as chancellor, or chief legal advisor, to four presiding bishops, starting in 1991 under Edmund L. Browning. He retired from the non-salaried role in 2019 under the current presiding bishop, Michael B. Curry. In between, he served throughout the tenures of Frank T. Griswold and Katharine Jefferts Schori.
“I am grateful to have learned the ropes from a man whose intelligence, wit, and love of the Church and its people were his hallmarks,” said his successor, Mary Kostel, in an email to TLC. “David’s enthusiasm for serving the Church was infectious, his energy for the next challenge boundless.”
“Chancellors serving other bishops sought his counsel, and with his encouragement, established a network of their own,” Griswold said, as quoted in an obituary released by the family in the Cape Gazette, which covers the Delaware Cape region where the family has a home. “The health of the church as a whole, in its fidelity to the Gospel, lay at the heart of what can only be called David’s ministry.”
“David was a friend and mentor to countless leaders, lay and clergy,” said Bishop of Washington Mariann Edgar Budde, in an email to the diocese. “If you didn’t know David personally, I’m certain that you know someone whose leadership he helped develop or you are part of a community that he once guided through a turbulent time.
In the wake of the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson as the first openly gay bishop, conservative bishops, priests, and lay leaders began making plans to leave the Episcopal Church. This led to a complicated, multi-jurisdictional legal battle over the ownership of church property — a battle that continues in some places to this day.
The Episcopal Church took the position that church properties are held in trust for the diocese in which they are located, while departing bishops and congregations sought to retain the churches where they had worshiped for years. With important exceptions — notably the Dioceses of Fort Worth and South Carolina — the Episcopal Church has mostly prevailed, often after years of appeals.
The disputed properties collectively are worth billions of dollars. (South Carolina, the last major case that is not fully resolved, involves more than two dozen churches, as well as a camp and conference center that alone is worth half a billion dollars.) Trust law and other legal standards vary from state to state, and similar fact sets have led to different outcomes in different states.
“This is hard. The concepts are hard,” said Beers, in a 2007 presentation to the Executive Council. “It is costly. And it requires a lot of pastoral care of those involved.”
Dozens of parishes around the country wound up in litigation with their dioceses. At the 2007 meeting, Episcopal News Service reported that Beers briefed the council on the status of disputes in the dioceses of Missouri, East Carolina, Rochester, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, New York, South Carolina, Connecticut, Northwest Texas, San Diego, Georgia, Nebraska, Northern California, Ohio, South Dakota, Southern Virginia, Central New York, and Olympia. This was before five entire dioceses voted to disaffiliate with TEC: South Carolina, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, and Quincy.
“Beers predicted another year or so of lawsuits,” ENS reported. The chancellor had no way of knowing that the property disputes would be a major focus throughout the rest of his career.
Beers was raised in New Haven, Connecticut, after being born there on October 19, 1935. He graduated from Trinity College in Hartford, and received his law degree from the University of California at Berkeley. He spent most of his career at Goodwin Procter, an international law firm now known as Goodwin Law. He was a part-time professor of classics at George Washington University, and taught classes at all levels in Latin and Greek.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret Graham Beers, and their five children.