PENNSYLVANIA: Diocese asks court to force return of Rosemont property

March 3, 2009

The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania has gone to court to get a breakaway congregation, its deposed priest and lay leaders to relinquish parish property.

The diocese said in its filing with the Montgomery Country Court of Common Pleas that because the persons purporting to serve on the vestry of Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont have said they are no longer a part of the Episcopal Church, the parish's real and personal property "will not be held or used for the work of the Episcopal Church." Such a situation violates the Episcopal Church's Constitution and Canons, the diocese has alleged.

Deposed priest David Moyer and lay leaders of the congregation have been at odds with the Episcopal Church and the diocese for close to 10 years for what they see as liberal theological innovations.

The diocese's filing alleges that the vestry is in the midst of deciding "which hierarchical church, other than the Episcopal Church" they will join. "They intend to take the assets of Good Shepherd with them," the diocese says. Instead, the diocese wants the court to require Moyer and the rest of the vestry to transfer title to all of the property to the diocese, and vacate the premises.

An effort to regain control of the Good Shepherd property has been going on for years. In November 2002, the Pennsylvania Standing Committee consented to Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison Jr.'s plan to gain control of the Good Shepherd property, according to the court filing. That consent came after the bishop had deposed Moyer in September of that year, using the "abandonment of communion" provision in the church's canons. The committee told Bennison to try to resolve the dispute and not to begin litigation without getting its advice and consent, the filing said.

Moyer was deposed because he repudiated the discipline of the Episcopal Church, repeatedly refusing to allow Bennison and his predecessor to make formal visits, required by the canons, to the Church of the Good Shepherd, and otherwise rejecting his authority as bishop. Moyer had been rector for 13 years at the time. Moyer also presented confirmands to then-Archbishop Maurice Sinclair of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone without having Bennison's required permission to do so.

Moyer then sued Bennison for his actions, claiming that the bishop, "motivated by secular animosity," had "wrongfully" sought to "force [Moyer] out of his vocation, his church, his congregation and his home." Moyer asked for damages for loss of employment and mental suffering. A Montgomery County jury rejected Moyer's claims in October 2008. Moyer did not appeal that decision and that aspect of the dispute has been concluded. The Standing Committee, now the ecclesiastical authority in the diocese, then decided to pursue the property dispute in court, the filing said.

Bennison himself is in the midst of appealing a sentence of deposition imposed on him by an ecclesiastical court earlier this year for conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy in an unrelated set of incidents.

The aftermath of Moyer's deposition reached far beyond the diocese. Then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey announced that he did not recognize Moyer's deposition and would license him to officiate in Canterbury. Carey later told ENS that the media had been "simplistic" in their portrayal of his actions.

Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury and then-Archbishop of Wales and Monmouth, said that he would license Moyer in his jurisdiction, except for the fact that "my legal officers would be very reluctant to issue any license to a person not connected in some way with the life of the diocese."

Letters from Carey and Williams about Moyer are available here.

At the same time, the House of Bishops of the Province of Central Africa made Moyer a priest in good standing there. The Central Africa province then transferred Moyer's canonical residency from its Diocese of Upper Shire to the Diocese of Pittsburgh at the request of then-Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan, who later transferred him back to Upper Shire. Members of Duncan's immediate family were Good Shepherd members.

Just after Moyer's deposition, then-Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold became involved in the issue, meeting with Bennison, Moyer and the lay leaders of the parish. "Although I have no canonical authority in this diocesan matter, I have employed every means at my disposal to help find a way forward that honored the concerns of all, and strongly urged that they enter into a process of mediation," Griswold said.

Consecrated as a Traditional Anglican Communion bishop in February 2005, Moyer was once president of Forward in Faith North America, an organization which is opposed to what it perceives as liberal trends in the church, including the ordination of women and homosexuals. He is currently listed as an "ex-officio adjunct" member of its council. Former Diocese of Quincy Bishop Keith Ackerman is the current president.

The Diocese of Pennsylvania prevailed in another property suit when the state Supreme Court ruled in late 2005 that the Church of St. James the Less in Philadelphia was bound by Episcopal Church canons concerning the use of parish property.