Skip to comments.But . . . : Court Precedents Side With Diocese of Virginia
Posted on 01/21/2007 4:45:12 PM PST by sionnsar
Up to 15 Episcopal parishes in Northern Virginia have voted or will vote to leave the Episcopal Church and its Diocese of Virginia. An agreed moratorium on litigation has now expired. Litigation involving the secession of parishes and ownership of ecclesiastical properties will be expensive; extremely complicated, involving arcane historical, canonical, and civil law inquiries; and probably bitter. In the Colonial era, the Church of England was the established church of the Virginia Colony. The disestablishment of the church followed the Revolution, and the new commonwealth asserted that the properties were properties of Virginia. The properties were subsequently conveyed to trustees - under the predecessor of current Virginia Code Title 57 - who held the properties for the use of the parishes and for the benefit of the newly constituted Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church, which is now the rule of Canon I.7.4; the trustees are fiduciaries for the diocese and the Episcopal Church.
Recent stories have characterized the current dispute as one of property ownership. In reality, the property questions are but an adjunct to a larger question that relates to church governance. Litigation probably will result favorably for the diocese, most likely not by affirmative decision, but rather by a civil courts refusal to accept subject matter jurisdiction over the dispute. Historically, civil courts have deferred to ecclesiastical authorities when disputes arose within hierarchical churches.
The Episcopal Church, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church, is a hierarchical church, as opposed to a congregational church such as a Baptist church, a Jewish synagogue, or a Muslim mosque. Hierarchical churches are governed by their own sets of laws (e.g., canons) and trial processes to resolve disputes. Congregational churches, on the other hand, self-govern, typically democratically and without superior layered institutions such as dioceses.
The Virginia Supreme Court - in its 1985 decision in Reid v. Gholson, reaffirmed in Cha v. Korean Presbyterian Church of Washington in 2001 - acknowledged the hierarchical-congregational distinction, holding that hierarchical churches are guided by a body of internally developed canon or ecclesiastical law. The decisions of such churches under their internal laws may be promulgated as matters of faith and considered entirely independent of civil authority. Persons who become members of such churches accept their internal rules and decisions of their tribunals.
For that reason, the court held that civil courts must treat a decision of a governing body or internal tribunal of a hierarchical church as an ecclesiastical determination constitutionally immune from judicial review. This is the Doctrine of Church Autonomy, derived from the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides, Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . . The second of these clauses, the Free Exercise Clause, effectively prohibits the government and its agencies - i.e., its courts - from interfering with the internal operations and decisions of a hierarchical church. It also calls into question the constitutionality of the trustee ownership scheme of Title 57 of the Virginia Code.
Read it all.
While the PCUSA now claims to be hierarchical for litigation purposes, true Presbyterians are not.
If this is the case, and if other currently orthodox ecclesial hierarchies are also potentially subject to revisionist takeovers in the future, there needs to be much thought put into the structure for ownership of church property in new dioceses such as those being set up under CANA, etc.
This presents a radically different set of facts than I have heard in the past, which seems to suggest that the Dennis Canon simply affirmed the pre-existent legal status in Virginia.
>> While the PCUSA now claims to be hierarchical for litigation purposes, true Presbyterians are not. <<
Who's the true Presbyterian? The name itself refers to a hierarchical structure, of Kirks, Presbyters, and General Assemblies, even once having synods. You might better argue that while Knox envisioned a Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland is, instead, very hierarchical.
That's easy. Those who subscribe to the Westminster Standards. In the US, the main denominations would be ARP, OPC, PCA and EPC; there are others.
The name itself refers to a hierarchical structure
No, there is a connectional structure, with higher courts, but there is no equivalent of an Episcopal, Catholic, or Lutheran Bishop who can tell local congregation what to do. The only real threat is to break the relationship. Both the PCA and EPC have had local congregations leave over disagreements; there is no hierarchical control.
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