Episcopalians still theologically divided

With its towering stone steeple, marble steps and crimson doors, Pittsburgh’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral looks every bit a “mighty fortress” of faith.

But the 226-year-old cathedral is a house divided, like the denomination that built it.

Since October, Trinity’s priests have been saying Sunday Masses for two warring dioceses: the older one composed of 28 theologically moderate or liberal parishes, and one newly created of 66 breakaway conservative parishes. Each claims to be the true “Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.” Each is dug in.

The cathedral parish has not taken sides. “They’re both in our prayers,” said the Rev. Canon Catherine Brall, Trinity’s provost.

Quarrels and schism have been hallmarks of the 2.1-million-member Episcopal Church USA since the mid-1970s, when it began ordaining women and modernized its prayer book. Those changes, coupled with its acceptance of gay clergy in the 1990s, have pulled in new members and driven away traditionalists, including at least three entire parishes in the Philadelphia region.

During the last five years, more than 300 of the approximately 7,000 congregations nationwide have departed the mother church for theological reasons; about two-thirds of those left during 2008 alone.

Just in the last 14 months, the bishops and most of the congregations in four dioceses — Fort Worth, Texas; Peoria, Ill.; San Joaquin, Calif., and Pittsburgh — have “disaffiliated.” Led by the Rev. Robert Duncan, Pittsburgh’s longtime bishop and now head of the schismatic diocese, they plan to reunite as a new, more conservative denomination called the Anglican Church in North America.

“The Episcopal Church is disintegrating,” Duncan said in an interview last week.

In Philadelphia, an Episcopal parish is headed by a rector, the Rev. David Moyer, who not only has switched to conservative Anglicanism but become a bishop.

For years, there have been rumblings of defection by the 450-member Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pa. The wealthy congregation, which opposes female and gay ordination, has not formally broken from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, but has refused to pay the diocese’s assessment or allow its bishops to visit.

In 2002, Moyer was deposed for “breaking communion” with the Episcopal Church by considering an offer to become an Anglican bishop. Once deposed, he took the offer.

While such disputes are rooted in Scriptural authority, the conservative exodus is increasingly taking a secular turn — right into courtrooms.

Defecting parishes and dioceses are claiming a kind of squatter’s right to their properties and other assets, resulting in a growing wave of litigation across the country.

The Episcopal Church USA has vigorously fought to retain its holdings. Individuals are “free to associate with whom they wish,” said the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop, but those who choose to leave must leave empty-handed.

As a result of Schori’s tough stand, disputes over property worth tens of millions of dollars are playing out in New York, Florida, South Carolina, Virginia and California.

In the past, defeat for defectors would have been an almost foregone conclusion.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that denominations whose bylaws assert ownership of congregational properties can keep all assets when a flock departs. Afterward, the Episcopal Church USA adopted that rule and used it to win a landmark case in Philadelphia in 2005.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that the breakaway St. James the Less parish in Philadelphia could not keep its historic buildings. The parish vestry held title to them, the justices wrote, but only “in trust” for the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

The litigation lasted more than four years, virtually bankrupting the 75-member parish. The congregation, led by the Rev. David Ousley, was obliged to relocate.

Ousley said he tells breakaway congregations that the legal fight is “not worth it. I’m not sure they believe me.”

Perhaps nowhere is the ecclesial divorce as messy as in the 11-county Diocese of Pittsburgh, where 66 of 94 parishes — about two-thirds of the 19,000 members — voted in October to defect from the Episcopal Church USA.

The schism was fomented by Duncan, 60, Pittsburgh’s bishop from 1999 until September, when the national church deposed him for his divisive ways.

In 2003, he had led a walkout from the House of Bishops after a majority ratified the election of the openly gay Rev. Eugene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire.

Weeks after Robinson’s elevation, Duncan called a special convention in the Pittsburgh diocese to declare that each parish’s property was its own.

In 2005, Allegheny County Court decreed that any assets, including $20 million in endowments and investments, had to stay with the diocese, even if most parishes defected. It also said that if property is disputed, both sides must enter mediation. Should that fail, the court decides.

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