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LONG ISLAND: Court rules for diocese, wider church in property case

[Episcopal News Service] The Supreme Court of Queens County, New York, recently ruled that the property of St. James' Episcopal Church, Elmhurst, is held in trust for the Diocese of Long Island and the Episcopal Church.

The majority of the members of St. James, Elmhurst voted in March 2005 to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Church in America. Those members formed what is now known as St. James Anglican Church, which is listed on the Anglican Church in America's website.

The departing members then sued the diocese and the Episcopal Church, asking for a ruling that neither entity had an interest in the parish property. The dissidents relied heavily on the fact that the parish was originally established as a part of the Church of England, arguing that the parish predated the Episcopal Church and they were therefore independent of the church and free to leave. St. James Church was founded in 1704 and officially chartered in 1761 by King George III. It was the first parish in Elmhurst, called Newtown in colonial times.

One of St. James' earliest rectors, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Seabury Jr., was consecrated in 1784 at Aberdeen, Scotland, by bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church to be the first bishop of the Episcopal Church. In 1789, the second meeting of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States confirmed his position and he became presiding bishop.

The court rejected the dissidents' claim and ruled that St. James became an Episcopal parish after the American Revolution, and has existed as a part of the Episcopal Church,
subject to its authority, since that time. The court noted that St. James, along with other New York parishes of similar status, petitioned the New York state legislature in 1793 to be allowed to incorporate as a parish of the Episcopal Church.

The court also said that the vestry members became ineligible to continue on the vestry or act on the parish's behalf after disaffiliating from the Episcopal Church. Following earlier New York cases, including the most recent decision involving the Diocese of Rochester, the court explicitly rejected the dissidents' arguments in this case that the Episcopal Church is not really hierarchical. The term hierarchical, in this sense, means that parishes are subject to the constitution, canons, rules and decisions of their dioceses and of the Episcopal Church as a whole.

It also rejected the dissidents' claim that Canon I.7(4), which states that all parish property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church and the diocese, constituted a new policy. In fact, the court noted other court cases in which the so-called "Dennis Canon" was found to have expressly codified "a trust relationship which has implicitly existed between the local parishes and their dioceses throughout the history" of the Episcopal Church.

"Although the individual members of St. James, including its vestry members, are free to disassociate themselves from St. James and [the Episcopal Church] and to affiliate with another religious denomination, they can neither remove St. James from the parish and Diocese, nor appropriate, nor take St. James' real and personal property with them," the court ruled.

The dissidents were also directed "to turn over the control and possession of property held by St. James to the priest in charge, the Rev. William DeCharme, for use in furtherance of the parish's ministry and mission pursuant to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese."  

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.

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