OHIO: Bishop comments on lawsuit filed against congregations

April 21, 2008

Saying that “we have a canonical, fiduciary and moral responsibility to protect and preserve,” Diocese of Ohio Bishop Mark Hollingsworth Jr. has made his first public comment on a lawsuit filed in late March against five congregations in which a majority of members have voted to separate themselves from the Cleveland-based diocese and the Episcopal Church.

Hollingsworth noted there have been “extensive negotiations,” but that the parties are at an impasse on questions of property ownership.

“In order to achieve the mutually respectful resolution we have sought all along, we need clarification from the court regarding who has the responsibility of ownership in these deliberations,” said Hollingsworth.

“This is not a change in our commitment, but the next necessary and reasonable step,” he said.

The diocese is asking the court to declare that title in all real and personal property associated with the five churches is held by the trustees of the diocese and that the defendants have breached “the terms of the trust and contract in which they held property for the benefit for the Episcopal Church and the Diocese.”

“We have asked the court to clarify who has the right to make those decisions that currently are keeping us from resolution, and we are hopeful that the court's decision will facilitate an overall resolution to this difficult matter,” said Hollingsworth.

He said that, at this point, the diocese will wait for the court’s determination, “which we expect will inform and assist all subsequent negotiations.”

But he also said the diocese remains open to “good faith negotiations and discussions with departing members.”

Detailing a dispute

A 36-page “Complaint for Declaratory Relief and Accounting” was filed in the Court of Common Pleas of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on March 26 by the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, the Trustees of the Diocese of Ohio and a minority group of members of the five congregations, who are recognized by the Diocese of Ohio as the continuing members of the churches. A majority of members of the five congregations voted last fall to leave the Episcopal Church.

Also listed as plaintiffs are the Parish of the Church of the Transfiguration, Cleveland; St. Barnabas’ Protestant Episcopal Church, Bay Village; the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, Akron; St. Anne’s in the Fields Episcopal Church; Madison; and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Akron (listed in the court action as the “parish-plaintiffs”).

The purported successor bodies of those congregations are listed as defendants are the lawsuit. These congregations have been renamed and have requested membership in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a mission of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. These congregations, which are not formally recognized by the Diocese of Ohio, are the Anglican Church of the Transfiguration, Cleveland; St. Barnabas’ Anglican Church, Bay Village; Church of the Holy Spirit, Akron; St. Anne’s in the Field Anglican Church, Madison; and St. Luke’s Anglican Church, Akron (“the defendants”).

Various officials of the breakaway congregations are also listed as defendants.

The complaint states that “plaintiffs take no issue with the right of disaffected members to leave their parishes, the Diocese, or the Episcopal Church. Defendants cannot, however, use, retain or hold land, buildings and other church property held by their parishes for the mission of the Diocese and the Episcopal Church.”

The plaintiffs also argue that “the Episcopal Church has long fulfilled its mission by supporting the development and maintenance of parishes and other worshipping congregations throughout the United States. It has done so pursuant to a constitution and canons under which ‘all real and personal church property held by or for the benefit of any Parish . . . is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish . . . is located’ and which prohibit any body from ‘encumbering or alienating’ any consecrated or unconsecrated property ‘without the previous consent of the Bishop.’ (Episcopal Church Canons I.7, II.6)

“Congregants at those churches likewise devoted their time, money and prayer to develop and grow the Parish-Plaintiffs with the understanding, intention, and expectation that their contributions were to a parish with the Episcopal Church,” the complaint states.

The complaint also notes that the defendants sought to transfer property of the parish-plaintiffs “first to an Anglican Diocese in Bolivia, and then in January 2008 to an Anglican Diocese in Nigeria” and at no time sought or received the consent of the diocese, as required by the diocese’s constitutions and canons.

In December 2007, the Diocese of Ohio “formally relieved the clergy at parish-plaintiffs of their service as ordained persons in the Episcopal Church as a result of their actions," according to the complaint. The diocese has also declared each of the parish-plaintiffs “imperiled” under the diocesan canons, which means that they no longer have the status of an independent parish under the control of a rector and vestry.

The diocese subsequently appointed parish trustees to oversee the affairs of the parish-plaintiffs. Those parish trustees have transferred all property to the trustees of the Diocese of Ohio.

“Of course, no one wants to rely on litigation to resolve these issues,” said Hollingsworth. “To do so commits valuable resources that all of us would rather be using in support of mission and ministry. At the same time, the properties and assets of parishes are also resources given by Episcopalians in support of the mission and ministry of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Ohio, and we have a canonical, fiduciary, and moral responsibility to protect and preserve them for that use.”

“To that end, it has become necessary to ask for help from the court to determine who has the responsibility of ownership, in order that we may continue to move toward the resolution we have been patiently seeking for some time.”

--Joe Bjordal is Episcopal Life Media correspondent in the dioceses of Provinces V and VI . He is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.