May the members of a congregation leave a hierarchical denomination and take the church property with them?
At great cost in time, effort, money and friendship — on both sides — the answer for the Episcopal Church in Virginia is no.
Many have followed this case and shared their opinions, both supporting and criticizing our effort to return Episcopal properties to the mission of the Episcopal Church. It’s tempting for this dispute to be about property, or politics, or just plain money. But the essence of the dispute is about theology itself.
Many denominations have a governance (“polity”) that allows for congregational self-determination. For hierarchical bodies, such as the Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, United Methodist and Presbyterian churches, it is quite a different matter. In these churches, local congregations represent and witness to the larger structure. Our polity has been established and codified for almost 2,000 years and is the result of a theological view of what the Church is and how it should be governed.
In our tradition, it is the diocese, not the congregation, that is the basic unit of the Church. The bishop is its chief pastor. The Church’s clergy vow to serve under the authority of their bishop. The elected leaders of congregations do the same. The congregations that separated from the Episcopal Church always existed within the authority of this tradition and polity. Without question, the members of these congregations were free to leave this authority, but according to the ancient polity to which they themselves subscribed, the diocese retains its right, and its generational responsibility, of oversight for the ministry of the local church.
We have a defining commitment to this ancient theology and tradition. We have a fiduciary duty to ensure that properties given to the Episcopal Church are used for its mission. That duty, however, is theologically based; we are called to be good stewards of property given to us by our forebears. Stewardship is a theological concept: we give thanks for the gifts God has given to us all. Stewards are bound to preserve gifts for future generations. The leaders of the departed congregations have asserted that this case was never about buildings or money but about larger principles. On that we agree.
The matter of biblical interpretation is at the heart of the issues, and there are real differences. Differences over biblical interpretation, not authority, remain unsettled. Even so, the common, ancient tradition as to authority, polity and property stands with the diocese and its bishop.
To be absolutely clear, as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, I do not want merely an outcome from the court; I seek a witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray blessings upon those congregations who have made the painful decision to leave the Episcopal Church. They have prayed for the diocese and for me. Despite our dispute, we are being as gracious as we possibly can by providing smooth transitions for those congregations. And we must find ways to minister where we have much in common, such as in South Sudan. We both work to help those who face the perils of daily life there, most notably from the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army. There is no reason — and no excuse — why we cannot do so together. Both sides must seek ministries in which we can, in unity, serve a society and a world in desperate need. In doing so, we will find one another again as brothers and sisters in the one God and thus be better disciples of the Lord we all follow.
What’s next? We begin anew, as we hope those who left the Episcopal Church will, too. Dayspring is the biblical term for a new dawn that speaks of God breaking through to do new things. Our Dayspring initiative is renewing and restarting Episcopal congregations and returning Episcopal congregations to their church homes. We will ensure that all recovered properties serve the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Church and thus serve our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have every confidence that our congregations will thrive. The Episcopal Church is built upon and celebrates its ancient roots, but is a faith in and for the modern world. Join us in God’s ancient yet new work.
The Rt. Rev. Shannon Sherwood Johnston is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.