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Exhausted by Title IV, Parish Quits Connecticut Diocese

By Kirk Petersen

After years of unresolved disciplinary charges against their rector, which completely drained their bank accounts, the members of a historic Connecticut church have voted to disassociate themselves from the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (ECCT) — and they are not going quietly.

In a letter to Bishop of Connecticut Jeffrey Mello from “the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Shelton,” the congregation states: “based on all that we have experienced as a parish, from the direct hands of the ECCT, we declare that we have ZERO confidence in your ability as a Christian institution. Furthermore, as of today 01/14/2024, We, the parishioners of St. Paul’s, are unequivocally, 100% done with the Episcopal Church in Connecticut.”  The letter alleged “upsetting racial bias existing within the ECCT,” which it described as a “morally bankrupt and incompetent system.”

Mello has responded by taking control of the church and appointing a new priest, according to a January 18 message on the diocesan website, “as we all discern what is next for the congregation. I have also placed the Reverend Amjad Samuel on administrative leave and appointed the Reverend Canon Ranjit Mathews as Priest-in-Charge. Canon Ranjit will lead worship at St. Paul’s, Sunday January 21.”

Mathews is the diocese’s canon to the ordinary, essentially the bishop’s chief of staff. He elaborated by email that the diocesan staff has ensured “that the church building is secure, heated and available for worship as well for 12-step and other community meetings. As is often the case when parish leadership changes, the locks have been rekeyed, and we have addressed flood damage and other maintenance issues related to winter weather. We also made sure that tenants on the church property have reliable support for maintenance and other rental issues.”

Amjad Samuel | St. Paul’s website

Samuel told TLC that the congregation intends to continue to worship together, but has not yet secured a new place to meet. “It’s been a three-year-long, gruesome process, and we have no hope of justice,” he said. The church traces its history to the early 1700s, and in 2014, Samuel became the 59th rector.

The congregation’s future is tenuous at best. “Because the vestry of St. Paul’s, Shelton has resigned and declared that the parish has run out of funds, it is no longer possible for St. Paul’s to pay a priest’s salary or benefits,” Mello said by email.

Earlier, Samuel said he did not know whether the church’s disassociation from the diocese would affect his pension, or whether the congregation would be able to continue paying his salary.

The charges against him are “based on total lies,” Samuel said, adding that he attributes the allegations to racism. Samuel was raised in Pakistan and ordained to the diaconate in the Church of Pakistan, which like the Episcopal Church is part of the Anglican Communion. He was ordained a priest in Connecticut in 2009.

The diocesan website contains hundreds of pages, from dozens of documents, of proceedings under Title IV of the church canons. Title IV deals with discipline for clergy. and is intended to be a confidential process in the early stages, while efforts are made to resolve disputes quietly among the parties. But if those efforts fail, the issue is referred to a Hearing Panel for an ecclesiastical trial, at which point further proceedings become a matter of public record.

In February 2022, the church attorney (essentially a prosecutor appointed by the diocese), formally charged Samuel with conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, and with retaliating against parishioners who opposed him. The two-page brief said staff members have left the church “because of the hostile and intimidating environment created and fostered by Rev. Samuel,” and he “retaliated directly and indirectly through others against those who complained to the Diocese about his behavior.”

Samuel responded by denying the accusations and arguing that they are impermissibly vague. He noted that under Title IV, the church attorney must provide a written statement “describing each alleged Offense separately, with reasonable particularity sufficient to apprise the Respondent of the acts, omissions or conditions which are the subject of the proceedings.” An investigation report, which would provide these kinds of specifics about the charges against Samuel, was never released.

This exchange has been followed by volley after volley of briefs and responses dealing with procedural issues, attempts to get panel members disqualified, accusations of misconduct by the diocese, efforts to redact certain information from the record, and motions to dismiss the charges. In its disassociation letter, the congregation said the proceedings have cost the church $170,000, and “we now do not have the liquid assets needed to sustain our parish.”

In response to a motion to dismiss, Church Attorney Donald J. Allison complained about the volume of paperwork. “Respondent must believe that if he spends forty-six pages listing and relisting, over and over, the same alleged canonical violations and repeatedly expresses outrage that alone will suffice for him to meet his burden of demonstrating irreparable harm,” he wrote.

The charges apparently stem in part from efforts made to negotiate a market-rate lease with an independent counseling practice, the Christian Family Counselling Center, which had occupied a building on the church campus for many years. The negotiations led to acrimony within the parish, and the counseling center eventually moved to a different location and changed its name.

Despite departures and controversy, Samuel maintained a loyal following at the church. After Sunday services on January 14, the congregants present voted unanimously to separate from the diocese. Samuel said approximately 35 voting members participated. The church had an average Sunday attendance of 57 for 2022, according to parochial report statistics.

Unlike many church departures in the past two decades, Samuel said the congregation has no intention of litigating over ownership of the property. Under the canons, church property is held in trust for the diocese. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent litigating over whether that provision can be enforced, with results that have varied based on trust laws in different states.

Mello has been the 16th Bishop of Connecticut since October 2022, and the Title IV charges were lodged under his predecessor, Bishop Ian Douglas. “In the coming months, we will continue working to conclude the Title IV process that has caused so much pain,” Mello wrote.

Samuel said he has not decided whether he will continue to participate in the Title IV process. When asked if he still considers himself an Episcopalian, Samuel replied, “being a Christian is more important than being part of a denomination.”

 

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