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PITTSBURGH: Parish asks court to protect diocesan property

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
12/22/2006
[Episcopal News Service]  Calvary Episcopal Church (http://www.calvarypgh.org/) returned to civil court December 19, asking a judge to enforce a ruling prohibiting the Diocese of Pittsburgh (http://www.pgh.anglican.org/) from transferring title or the use of any real or personal property to any entity outside of the Episcopal Church.

The petition (http://prothonotary.county.allegheny.pa.us/WebMomCacheDir/vol409000005F6.pdf) was filed by Calvary Church; its rector, the Rev. Dr. Harold T. Lewis; Philip Richard Roberts; and Herman S. Harvey. All three men were involved in a 2003 lawsuit against the diocese, the settlement of which they now want a judge to enforce. At the time of the 2003 lawsuit Roberts was Calvary's senior warden and Harvey was a parishioner of St. Stephen's Church, Sewickley, Pennsylvania.

The plaintiffs believe that "despite assertions to the contrary -- persons and property within the Diocese are effectively being removed or have been removed from the Episcopal Church" in the wake of the diocesan convention's decision (http://www.episcopalchurch.org/3577_79381_ENG_HTM.htm) in early November to request a relationship with a primate other than Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and to withdraw consent to membership in the Episcopal Church's Province III.

The constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, the Anglican Communion's main policy-making body, makes no provisions for alternative primatial oversight. Neither do the Constitution and Canons (http://www.episcopalarchives.org/e-archives/canons/CandC_FINAL_11.29.2006.pdf) of the Episcopal Church.

"The diocese firmly believes the matters presented in the petition were either finally resolved by the settlement of October 2005 or of such a nature that, if they are to be pursued, they can only be pursued in a new and separate lawsuit," the diocese said in a statement (http://www.pgh.anglican.org/news/local/calvarypetition122106) on its website. "There have been no breaches of the settlement agreement by the diocese, the bishops, or committees sued." 

In the statement, Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan said: "It is a sad thing to see Calvary Church, which over the years has been part of so much that was good in the diocese, once again attempt to use the secular legal system as a lever to enforce its own version of being Episcopalian on the majority here. We fully expect to defeat this effort. We will continue to protect the rights and resources of all Pittsburgh Episcopalians."

In October 2005, a Pennsylvania state court judge approved a settlement in the lawsuit, which challenged a 2003 diocesan convention resolution asserting that congregations own their buildings and that neither the diocese nor national church structures could claim them if a parish decides to leave.

According to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, dioceses are created or dissolved only by acts of General Convention (Articles V and VI) (http://www.episcopalarchives.org/e-archives/canons/CandC_FINAL_11.29.2006.pdf) and dioceses create or dissolve Episcopal congregations in their midst. Congregational property is held in trust for the diocese, and the diocese holds property in trust for the wider church (Canon I.7.4 of the Episcopal Church) (http://www.episcopalarchives.org/e-archives/canons/CandC_FINAL_11.29.2006.pdf <http://www.episcopalarchives.org/e-archives/canons/CandC_FINAL_11.29.2006.pdf> ).

The Calvary settlement, announced October 14, 2005, stated that even if the majority of the diocese's congregations decide not to remain in the Episcopal Church, any diocesan real estate and endowments would be held by the remaining diocesan structure.

Calvary's December 19 court petition asks that the 2005 settlement be enforced because it claims that Duncan, among others, signed a "pledge of allegiance" to a number of Anglican primates from outside the United States during a mid-November meeting with them in Virginia. The petition claims that those present at the meeting "discussed strategies, to be dictated by the foreign primates, to facilitate the creation of a separate ecclesiastical structure in the United States."

Such an entity was called for the by Kigali Statement (http://www.anglicancommunion.org/acns/articles/41/75/acns4193.cfm) issued in September by some of the Anglican primates of the global south.

Calvary's filing asks for an accounting of the use of all the diocese's real and personal property since 2003, various methods to prevent transfer of that property outside the Episcopal Church, and appointment of a trustee to oversee the property, coupled with a declaration that Duncan and Assistant Bishop Henry Scriven have "renounced and repudiated their fiduciary responsibilities" regarding the property.

In a motion (http://prothonotary.county.allegheny.pa.us/WebMomCacheDir/vol409000006E8.pdf) filed December 20, Calvary asks that the court speed up the disclosure of information it requests the diocese turn over to it so that it can make its case on the petition to the court. The normal time for such so-called "discovery" is 30 days; the parish asked for a 21-day limit.

Calvary says the limited time frame is needed in part because the court should rule on its petition before the scheduled meeting of the primates of the Anglican Communion February 11-19, 2007 in Tanzania. The petition says that some of the primates and Duncan are planning to use the meeting to further their efforts to set up an alternative Anglican structure in the United States.

The collection of court filings dating to the initial 2003 filing is available here (http://prothonotary.county.allegheny.pa.us/CaseDetails.asp?AnotherCaseID=TRUE&CaseID=GD-03-020941&ComingFromWelcomeScreen=&BeginDate=&EndDate=&From=). Many of the documents number more than 300 pages and take considerable time to download.