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Pittsburgh petitions Pennsylvania Supreme Court: The Church of England Newspaper, April 15, 2011. April 15, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Pittsburgh, Property Litigation.
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First published in The Church of England Newspaper.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh has appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court asking it to overturn a lower court ruling that gives almost £12 million in endowment funds and control of 22 parishes to the faction aligned with the national Episcopal Church.

On Feb 2 the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court let stand a lower court ruling that awarded property held by the diocese to the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh rather than the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, which withdrew from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in 2008.

The Anglican diocese led by Archbishop Robert Duncan on April 6 asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review the trial court’s decision which interpreted an October 2005 stipulation between the Diocese and Calvary Episcopal Church to settle outstanding litigation.

The lower court interpreted the language of the first paragraph of the stipulation, which required the diocese to continue holding its assets for the benefit of all the parishes of the diocese regardless of how many sought to quit the Episcopal Church, to mean that if the diocese left the Episcopal Church it would turn over all of its property to the national church—a contention disputed by the diocese.

The underlying issue of whether a diocese may leave the Episcopal Church has yet to be litigated in Pittsburgh.  However, on Feb 17 Bishop Kenneth Price of the Episcopal diocese sent a letter to the 42 congregations of the Anglican diocese offering to enter into negotiations over their property.  However those congregations which did not respond by a March deadline would be considered to be in violation of the Episcopal Church’s canons and their vestries and clergy would be replaced.

A spokesman for the Anglican diocese told The Church of England Newspaper the congregations responded that they accepted the invitation to discuss the question of property, but did not accept Bishop Price’s contention that they were part of the Episcopal Church and subject to its canons.

Two congregations of the Anglican diocese have so far entered into settlement agreements with the Episcopal diocese.  One, which had already given up its property agreed to return an assortment of Eucharistic vessels and prayer books, while a second purchased their building from the diocese and agreed not to affiliate with the Anglican diocese for a period of five years.

At this point “we are in a holding pattern,” diocesan spokesman David Trautman explained.  “Some congregations may walk away from their buildings” believing their real estate is “not essential to their mission.

“Some may try to negotiate,” he added, while those parishes where title is held by the congregation and not the diocese, are likely to take no action unless the Episcopal diocese attempts a “hostile takeover”, he noted.

While the Episcopal Church’s legal strategy had left some “scared and worried,” Mr. Trautman said the overwhelming majority of the Anglican diocese’s clergy and lay leaders were committed to the fight.  Bishop Price’s February letter and the two settlements had served to “unite the clergy and lay leaders,” he said, to a degree he had not seen before.

Some “good has come out of the litigation,” Mr. Trautman noted.  “What has happened is that when people are put in a position where they are threatened” it “makes them start thinking about their mission, about what is important,” he said.

One canon lawyer familiar with the case told CEN the factions need to think through carefully their next steps.  If the Episcopal diocese pushes too hard it may find itself with a number of empty buildings which it must maintain.  If it moves against those congregations that own their own properties, which are among the largest and wealthiest of the Anglican diocese, it will have to litigate the issue of whether a diocese may withdraw from the Episcopal Church—an issue currently before the courts in Fort Worth and Central California.

The Anglican diocese must weigh the costs of pursuing the case to the state’s Supreme Court, against making an offer for the 22 congregations the Episcopal diocese now controls, he added.

Canon lawyer Allan Haley observed the current ruling is “unpublished” by the courts, and will not “set any precedent for other cases in Pennsylvania” or elsewhere.

The Pittsburgh “result once again bears out the haphazard nature of litigation — you can devote hundreds and hundreds of hours, and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, to it, but it all comes down in the end to what, in this case, three justices—who might spend at most four or five hours on the case—think,” Mr. Haley said.

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