Building on two recent amicable agreements that settled parish property disputes, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh has invited all other local congregations leaving the Episcopal Church to begin conversations aimed at reaching similar negotiated settlements.
In a February 17th letter mailed to the rector, wardens, and vestry of each congregation, Bishop Kenneth L. Price, Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese offered a Pastoral Direction for resolving property issues, including an 8-point overview of what would be involved in those conversations.
The documents were sent to 41 parishes that have not participated in the Episcopal Diocese since October 2008. Copies were sent as a courtesy to the many parishes that have remained active in the Diocese. The bishop’s letter also pointed to consequences required by church law for parishes that keep themselves removed from the Diocese for a prolonged time.
Both the letter and the Pastoral Direction state that while a reconciliation and return are hoped for, where that is not be possible, an amicable resolution of differences can be achieved.
“[We] understand that some from our community feel compelled to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church and our Diocese,” reads the introduction to the Pastoral Direction. It continues, “We seek to respect those who feel called to leave.”
The Pastoral Direction invites clergy and lay leaders in this situation to enter into conversation with Bishop Price. Negotiations will be based on an acknowledgement of Episcopal Church canons concerning property. The value of all parish property and assets will be taken into account, and because each parish has unique circumstances and its own priorities for its mission, discussions will take place on a parish-by-parish basis.
For that reason, Diocesan leaders do not believe a single agreement covering all the parishes as a group is possible or desirable.
During the negotiations, the Diocese will determine how to best minister to any members of the congregation who wish to remain Episcopalian. The Diocese is committed to allocating financial and personnel resources to address those needs. Bishop Price has recently appointed the Rev. Canon Dr. Jay Geisler, Rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Brentwood, to also serve as Canon for Formation to oversee efforts to reach out to those currently not being served by an Episcopal ministry.
“This is a very important mission and I am delighted that under Jay’s supervision we can increase our efforts to identify and minister to those who may have been overlooked in recent years,” says Bishop Price.
As with the two existing parish settlements, the parties that will approve any agreement consist of the appropriate leaders of each congregation and the Bishop and the Board of Trustees of the Episcopal Diocese. Both the Diocese and the parishes will jointly seek the necessary court approval.
Through such amicable agreements, congregations and the Episcopal Diocese can remove themselves from the controversy of litigation and focus more intently on their respective Gospel ministries.
Bishop Price’s letter reminded parishes that they risk becoming a “Transitional Parish” for failing to participate in and to meet their financial obligations to the Diocese for more than two years.
The bishop’s canonical determination, made with the advice of the diocesan Standing Committee, is that each of the 41 parishes receiving his letter met the criteria prescribed by Diocesan Canon XV, Section 6, and that “under the most favorable interpretation of our Diocesan Canons” they would have until March 13, 2011, to resume their participation and payment of assessments.
One consequence of becoming a Transitional Parish is that the title to all parish property becomes vested in the Board of Trustees of the Episcopal Diocese, if that is not already the case.
Bishop Price ends his letter with “My first hope, of course, is that we be reconciled in a way that your parish can share in the life of the Episcopal Diocese again. If that is not possible at this time, I reiterate my invitation that you contact me to begin a conversation seeking an amicable resolution of these property issues. By this all will know that we are His disciples.”
Recent Agreements as Models
Both the bishop’s letter and Pastoral Direction highlight how agreements reached this month with St. Philip’s Church in Moon Township and the Somerset Anglican Fellowship can serve as examples of different ways the Episcopal Diocese has negotiated resolutions to parish issues.
In the Somerset agreement, the congregation will return property to the Episcopal Diocese and can affiliate with any religious body of its choosing. St. Philip’s will become an independent congregation, retain its property, and make payments to the Episcopal Diocese. Both parishes agreed to not support any litigation against the Diocese.
“The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh did not impose these settlement terms on those congregations,” says Bishop Price. “These terms were entered into freely, negotiated fairly, and the results were acceptable to both sides.”
For More Information
A PDF copy of Bishop Price’s February 17th letter is available by clicking here.
A PDF copy of the accompanying Pastoral Direction for Parishes Seeking to Resolve Property Issues can be downloaded by clicking here.