Skip to comments.St. James the Less: An American Anglican Story
Posted on 01/09/2006 5:06:28 PM PST by sionnsar
I drive my car somewhat reluctantly down The Main Line. Its early afternoon, raining persistently, and Im cold, damp, and in a slight funk. I shiver and adjust the heat control on the dash upward to something approximating warmth. I havent had lunch yet, my stomach is protesting, and as I merge onto the expressway the rain worsens and the notion of going straight home for lunch keeps looking better every minute. Then, suddenly, Im drifting down the offramp and into the city. The combination of urban blight, dark clouds, and rain make for a scene reminiscent of an Edward Gorey illustration. Im driving past boarded-up row homes and caked-on downtown grime and graffiti while exoskeletons of the Industrial Revolution cast shadows over the remnants of what once was.
Im cruising the Badlands. Welcome to Northwest Philly.
Looking for the cemetery, I almost dont notice the gothic Wanamaker bell tower in the distance. I pull around the block and park next to the cemetery, pulling the hood of my rain jacket over my head so I can get out and explore a bit. Thats how I find myself standing outside The Church of St. James the Less, Philadelphia, the latest casualty of The Episcopal Churchs war on theological orthodoxy.
St. James the Less Parish
was built by the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as a place of worship for the textile (wool) mill workers living in the working-class East Falls area north of the City of Philadelphia in 1846, an antebellum masterpiece in the English Gothic Revival style. The church is a Cambridge Camden Society edifice, and as such, an exemplar of exquisite 19th-century stonework. The church itself was a careful and expensive reproduction of a medieval model, [and] it established the authority of the English parish church styles which had been tentatively introduced by [New Jersey Bishop George Washington] Doane. The steeply pitched roof, clearly delineated chancel, bellcote, buttresses, and low side walls as a means of encompassing the interior aisles were among the elements St. James the Less borrows from the plans of many small medieval English churches in the approved Camden style.
St. James the Less is much more than just a piece of historical Church architecture, and thats where the real story begins. For many years the small Anglo-Catholic parish ran a Church school for underprivileged children from low-income homes that in most cases did not include a father. St. James the Less closed this school a few years ago because it could not afford to run it while paying the legal bills resulting from the fight with The Episcopal Churchs array of lawyers. Interestingly, the beliefs of the parishioners at the Church of St. James the Less are held by the vast majority of Anglicans in the world. Yet, those beliefs are not tolerated in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, reported a press release.
Last week, the parish lost the legal battle to retain ownership of the property they have worshiped in and maintained for over 150 years.
Im no Anglo-Catholic, but I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for this parish and its ministry because the staff of St. James the Less, particularly Rector Fr. David Ousley, resisted this move by Bishop Charles Bennison (the Universalist bishop who wrote the infamous Visigoth rite, claimed publicly that Jesus was a sinner who acknowledged His own sin, and supported the consecration of homosexual cleric V. Gene Robinson to the Episcopacy) to take over the property, throw out the staff and Vestry, and either fill it with ringers from the Diocesan offices or sell it to the highest bidder. According to Fr. Ousley, being faithful to our principles has now cost us much that is dear. Ousley has maintained since 1999, when the parish seceded from ECUSA, that
The Diocese has repeatedly refused to engage in any meaningful mediation or negotiation of its claim that it should be allowed to have the parish property. The Diocese persists in making that claim and has been unwilling to resolve the issue without going to court, in spite of the fact that the parish holds title to all of its property and the Diocese has never contributed financially to the parish. There is nothing in the property deeds or corporate records that give the Diocese any right to take the parish property.
I wonder if the Vestry of St. James the Less made a tactical error before the case got completely tied up in court by creating a non-profit foundation the Vestry could transfer the property to if the court decision went their way. Obviously the court wasnt buying it. Another consideration is that unlike other property battles going on with The Episcopal Church all over the country right now, its doubtful that this decision will set any precedent, given Pennsylvania property law and the age of the parish charter.
More thoughts over at Canterbury Tales.
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