CONNECTICUT: Diocese, Episcopal Church file complaint against those refusing to vacate Groton church

July 2, 2008

The Episcopal Church has entered into a suit in support of the Diocese of Connecticut against the former rector and vestry members of Bishop Seabury Episcopal Church in Groton, Connecticut. The motion was granted by Connecticut's New London Judicial District Court on June 24. The Diocese of Connecticut filed a similar suit April 30 in the same court.

Both complaints ask that the court prevent the defendants, who have left the Episcopal Church, from retaining church property. Additional plaintiffs are Bishop Seabury Church and its priest-in-charge, the Rev. Canon David Cannon.

Since becoming a parish in 1955, Bishop Seabury Church -- which is named for the first Episcopal bishop and Groton native Samuel Seabury (1729-1796) -- has been connected to the diocese in various ways, including through participation at annual conventions and receipt of gifts and loans.

Former rector the Rev. Ronald S. Gauss and some former members of the congregation, including vestry members, affiliated with the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) in November 2007. According to the complaints, Gauss has refused to relinquish control of the church property, including keys to the buildings and parish records to Cannon.

The beginnings of the litigation can be traced to September 27, 2005, when six Connecticut priests and some members of their congregations filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the diocese and others had violated their civil rights. A U.S. District judge dismissed the case August 21, 2006. Ecclesiastical charges against Bishop Andrew D. Smith brought by the so-called "Connecticut Six" were reviewed by the Episcopal Church's Title IV Review Committee, which dismissed the charges April 11, 2007.

One of the "Connecticut Six" priests is Gauss, who applied for retirement from active ministry in October 2007. On November 13, 2007, Smith approved Gauss' application to retire on December 1. On November 14, the wardens of Bishop Seabury Church wrote to Smith informing him that the parish had affiliated itself with CANA.

Smith met with the church wardens on January 8, 2008 and explained that since they had left the Episcopal Church, they are no longer eligible to hold office in the Episcopal Church. Two days later, Smith wrote to the wardens and vestry members, officially removing them from their offices in the Episcopal Church. He gave Gauss and those who have left the Episcopal Church until January 20 to relinquish possession and use of Bishop Seabury Church, which they have not done.

Gauss was inhibited on May 2, thus prohibiting him from functioning as a priest of the Episcopal Church. Nevertheless, Gauss is listed on the congregation's website as "senior associate rector," apparently as the result of a civil contract. Gauss' retirement is not mentioned on the website. The Rev. Milton Cheney, a resident of Rhode Island, is listed as "assistant rector." According to Church Publishing's Clergy/Parish Finder, Cheney is canonically resident in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts.

Cannon assumed his responsibilities as priest-in-charge of Bishop Seabury Church on April 14. According to a statement on the Diocese of Connecticut's website, Cannon's appointment "was necessitated by the recent retirement of the former rector of the Parish and the decision by some members of the Parish, including the lay leadership, to leave the Episcopal Church and join another church."

Furthermore, the statement said, "every member of this Church and our Nation enjoys the freedom to worship in the community of their choosing and we wish those who have departed well in their spiritual journey…The Diocese will work with the congregation of the Parish and with Father Cannon to grow that community of faith so that it can continue to serve Christ in Groton and southeastern Connecticut."

-- The Rev. Lisa B. Hamilton is correspondent for Provinces I and IV. She is based in Sandisfield, Massachusetts and Venice, Florida.