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The Church and the Ownership Society
The Connecticut 6 ^ | 9/19/2005 | Joseph Wakelee-Lynch

Posted on 10/04/2005 5:45:56 PM PDT by sionnsar

When an Orange County judge issued a ruling in mid-August in favor of one of the three breakaway churches that seceded from the Episcopal Church (ECUSA) and the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles last summer, he confirmed that the parish was in conformity with U.S. cultural assumptions about ownership.

St. James, Newport Beach, along with All Saints, Long Beach and St. David's, North Hollywood, associated itself with the Diocese of Luweero, in Uganda, in August 2004, and its leadership claimed that the parishioners were the rightful owners of all of the church's property. The diocese and ECUSA sued the three congregations, stating that parish properties belong to the diocese as a whole, with parishes operating them in trust on behalf of the diocese. St. James countered in court by asserting that the case was actually a free speech issue, because the Episcopal authorities sued in order to punish the parish's members for disagreeing over homosexuality issues. The superior court judge accepted the parish's claim of ownership, and indicated his sympathy for the free-speech issue presented to the court. Suits regarding the other two churches have not yet been concluded.

The St. James case may turn out to be a bellwether case in the dispute that engulfs U.S. Anglicanism. The legal claims have been widely covered during the last 12 months, and the superior court decision has been hailed with rejoicing by some. But, that the parish's case has been blessed by a U.S. civil court is especially ironic.

It should surprise no one if all U.S. civil courts that rule on ownership issues of Episcopal parishes that secede from ECUSA decide that ownership resides with the congregations. Ownership in our society is based on the concept that money buys control. You own what you pay for. Every judge who rules accordingly upholds that tenet, which is one of the foundations of our materialistic culture. And every congregation that celebrates those rulings trumpets its loud hurrah. "Few things are as precious to Americans as the right to free speech and the right to own property," said Eric C. Sohlgren, lead attorney for St. James and counsel with Payne & Fears, in praising the court's ruling in an announcement found on the St. James website. Sad to say, most of America's Christians, including many of us in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition, have conformed to our materialistic culture's definition of ownership.

The biblical concept of ownership, of course, is much different. Jesus, who could rightfully say the world was his, made his way in this world as an itinerant teacher, with no place to lay his head (Luke 9:58), and he died with few possessions to his name. The early church, as we know from the Book of Acts, describes an ownership system of sharing and redistribution that is foreign in 21st century America, and Ananias and Sapphira paid a prices far higher than they bargained for when they sold their property (Acts 5). In the church of Christ, there is no promise that any of us will own what give our money toward; in fact, we are far more likely to be asked to give our riches away in a manner that may look foolish in a materialistic society.

When I once was senior warden and stewardship chair for an Episcopal parish, I had little sympathy for parishioners who held the notion that because they gave money to the church, they owned it. Their contribution, weighted by the size of their gift, appeared to be considered payment for a kind of financial veto over how church funds would be used. In politics, that's called pay-for-access, and it is based on a pay-for-control rationale for giving. That view, however, was rarely found among my congregation's tithers, which surprised me at first. But, it actually makes perfect sense in a Christian framework.

My congregation's tithers were the best givers not because they gave lots of money. Instead, they seemed to understand that they donated their money not to exercise ownership of the church but precisely to give the church and its gifts away. As Christians, we don't support churches out of a belief that we own them, even though in many ways, through our husbandry of the grounds and facilities, for example, we act like owners. Tithing -- theologically understood -- is an act of giving away, not purchasing.

The concept of holding in trust is at the heart of the church's place in the world. In the U.S. Anglican church, vestries act on behalf of our parishes. As a senior warden, I accepted that society in effect required me to act as owner of the church and that I was legally liable. But theologically, I owned none of it. But, I was obligated to care for it, so that others may receive its gifts after I was gone. Claims of ownership of that sort likely will find little recognition in the U.S. court system. Bishops who argue that Anglicanism is organized into dioceses and that parishes are the property of the collective, diocesan body are promulgating a very un-American view of ownership. Still, they must argue it. None of us are owners; we are all tenants and caretakers. Paying our money buys us nothing.

Since the consecration of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003, charges of conforming to the culture have filled the air, like mud balls at the beach. But, if any of us believe that the so-called liberal and progressive churches are at risk of conforming to the vagaries of society's malleable cultural and moral values, then they should likewise confess that the so-called orthodox and conservative churches are equally endangered by being bought by society's economic assumptions and promises, as well as blessing with whole hearts the demand of the state to suspend Jesus' nonviolent ethic whenever the state requires it. The church in every era, in every society, and on every continent is pressed to conform. None of us yet have managed to resist fully.

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Joseph Wakelee-Lynch is a contributing editor to The Witness, and his regular online column is "The View from Sardis." He lives in Long Beach, Calif. He may be reached through email at

TOPICS: Mainline Protestant
KEYWORDS: ownershipsociety

1 posted on 10/04/2005 5:45:59 PM PDT by sionnsar
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To: ahadams2; Fractal Trader; Zero Sum; anselmcantuar; Agrarian; coffeecup; Paridel; keilimon; ...
Traditional Anglican ping, continued in memory of its founder Arlin Adams.

FReepmail sionnsar if you want on or off this moderately high-volume ping list (typically 3-9 pings/day).
This list is pinged by sionnsar and newheart.

Resource for Traditional Anglicans:

Humor: The Anglican Blue (by Huber)

Speak the truth in love. Eph 4:15

2 posted on 10/04/2005 5:54:25 PM PDT by sionnsar (†† || (To Libs:) You are failing to celebrate MY diversity! || Iran Azadi)
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To: sionnsar
Hmmm. Don't know what to make of this. So is the good Reverend in favor of parishes taking the property in the event of a dispute? Dioceses? ECUSA?

Seems like the group he most approves of is tithers who keep their mouths shut. Not surprising since most ECUSA clergy consider congregations to be little more than mushrooms - you know, quiet, kept in the dark and covered with s^!t.

3 posted on 10/04/2005 6:42:35 PM PDT by Martin Tell (Red States [should act like they] Rule)
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To: Martin Tell

I don't think Jesus ever said "Pay up and shut up."

Seems to me the really big problems in this world are caused by the people who believe that the less you contribute and the more damage you create, the more entitled you are to holler and take command.

In an ideal world, everyone would cooperate and do what is best, acting through the agent appointed by them all. However, in a world increasingly controlled by nameless and faceless Belgian bureaucrats, the inclination is more pragmatic: circle the wagons and limit control to people we actually know are on our side.

4 posted on 10/05/2005 4:36:21 AM PDT by KateatRFM
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