Gift of love

Battling over property takes focus off the gospel
January 15, 2009

In private conversations, Episcopal Church leaders from various dioceses tell me that two important reasons for suing to retain title to assets of parishes and dioceses that wish to disaffiliate from the denomination are fairness to the faithful Episcopal remnant and deterring others from leaving. At first blush, those rationales may appear to justify the lawsuits. However, neither rationale withstands careful scrutiny from a Christian perspective.

Quite simply, Christianity is about grace and love. For we who seek to follow Jesus, grace should take precedence over law.

The Episcopal Church operates through democratic processes. When a majority of a parish (or a diocese) votes to leave, those who leave should recognize that the property belongs to the denomination and, if they wish to have the property, offer to purchase it at fair market value. If those who wish to leave insist on keeping the property, however, grace demands that we accept that selfish decision rather than holding to the letter of the law. Although the Episcopal Church likely may prevail in the courts, it will have further alienated the disaffected, turned its focus away from the gospel imperative and wasted precious resources on an issue ultimately of little importance for God's business.

This choice may seem unfair to the minority who wish to remain Episcopalian, but it is gracious towards the larger number who left as well as to those whom God's love will touch because the church focuses, and invests its resources, in mission rather than legal actions. The Diocese of Virginia, for example, may well spend several million dollars in lawsuits to retain the property of seven parishes that voted to leave.

Although substantial property is at stake, for the several million dollars and countless hours of time the suits will require from bishops, priests and laity, the Diocese of Virginia could fund several new missions to serve those who remain and others. Successful lawsuits that retain large buildings for small remnants will burden those congregations with excessive overhead and probably instill a maintenance rather than missionary orientation.

Love, not manipulation
Love between consenting adults does not seek to manipulate by using incentives or disincentives. Love wants what is best for the other, a choice that only the other can make. In human relationships, the unrequited lover who genuinely loves will sadly but freely permit his or her beloved to choose another. The same standard should apply to the community of God's people known as the Episcopal Church.

Individuals who vote to separate from the Episcopal Church are consenting adults. By so voting, they spurn our love for them.

Part of the blame may belong to the Episcopal Church. We have not always communicated our love with sufficient ardor, frequency or effectiveness. We have sometimes failed to provide parishes and dioceses with a leader or leaders committed to the Episcopal vision of God's inclusive love.

Conversely, some non-Episcopal Church representatives have mischaracterized recent events within the church or the Anglican Communion, seeking to fragment the Episcopal Church. Non-Episcopal Church representatives have funded or employed manipulative tactics to encourage votes for disaffiliation.

None of this diminishes the demand of our Baptismal Covenant to "respect the dignity of every human being."

Individuals, parishes and dioceses that leave further fracture Christianity's already badly broken unity. Departures also spiritually weaken the Episcopal Church, leaving us bereft of the unique gifts and contributions that those who depart had brought. After all, people, not physical plants or money, are Christianity's most important resource.

Nevertheless, these departures have precedents. The Church of Rome excommunicated the Church of England. Although this departure was involuntary, the English knew that failing to alter their course most likely would cause the pope to act. King Henry seized this opportunity to expropriate church property, disestablish monasteries, etc. Reform-minded clergy similarly saw a window of opportunity to make what they perceived as badly needed changes to liturgy and canon law.

Following the American Revolution, Anglicans in the United States had to choose between swearing allegiance to the British crown and becoming U.S. citizens. If some had not chosen the latter course, the Episcopal Church probably would not exist. Those who left the Church of England took title to the church's property in the United States without compensating the Church of England.

Maintaining identities
Anglicans from other provinces who have crossed jurisdictional lines to organize missions, receive parishes or ordain clergy in the United States certainly have violated Anglican Communion structure and protocols. As much as I find such activities reprehensible, those activities do not alter the identity of those provinces or individuals as members of the Anglican Communion. Likewise, those who leave the Episcopal Church when accepted by a non-Episcopal Church diocese or province do not cease to be Christian or members of the Anglican Communion.

Establishing procedures for an orderly transfer of property and funds when a parish or diocese votes to affiliate with another constituent member of the Anglican Communion and refuses to honor the Episcopal Church's ownership will represent a costly gift of love. That gracious gift, whether it costs tens of thousands or tens of millions of dollars, honors and respects the dignity of those who depart. That gift also emulates God's great gift of love in Jesus, a gift given knowing its cost.

Sometimes, an unrequited lover's beloved will desire, in retrospect, the gift of love that he or she previously spurned. If that should happen among those who have left, then the Episcopal Church's gracious love may inspire hope for a warm homecoming à la the parable of the prodigal son.

Letting go reluctantly and unwillingly sends the opposite message to the beloved who spurned our love. Those leaving the Episcopal Church should go with God's blessing and ours, albeit a blessing given with tears of sadness. We who remain must stay faithful to our calling and understanding of God's word, treating all people – members of the church and others – with the dignity and respect due a child of God.


-- George Clifford is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. To respond to this column, email We welcome your own commentaries.

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