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Diocese of Pittsburgh reaches “comprehensive agreement” with breakaway churches

Posted on: March 1, 2018 8:50 AM
Christ’s Church in Greensburg is one of nine breakaway parishes to have reached agreement with the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh
Photo Credit: Wikimedia / Farragutful

In a joint statement, the US-based Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Pittsburgh and the breakaway Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh have announced a “comprehensive agreement” over the future of nine parishes which seceded from the diocese in October 2008. The statement says that the agreement “resolves disputed questions over the ownership and use of the church property that have lingered since the congregations voted to leave The Episcopal Church.” The nine parishes and the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh are part of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), an independent church which is not a member of the Anglican Communion.

The agreement was reached after “years of confidential negotiations and intense consideration by representatives of all parties” with the assistance of two professional mediators.

Commenting on the agreement, the Episcopal Church’s Bishop of Pittsburgh, Dorsey McConnell, said: “Even though the issues resolved here originated through division and were often the cause of great pain, we know that as Christians we are called to be ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation, first among ourselves, and then with the larger world.

“The Episcopal Diocese and the Parishes have come to recognise that our mutual desire to live according to the Gospel and to share with others the Good News of Jesus Christ far outweighs any differences we have with each other, and this agreement frees us to carry out that mission as we believe God is calling us to do.”

The Anglican Church of North America’s Bishop of Pittsburgh, James Hobby, said: “I feel that the settlement is quite remarkable, given the litigious culture in which we live. Clearly, hard work and difficult conversations were part of the negotiations. But, biblical principles and a shared commitment to follow Christ provided a healthy context for pursuing the discussions with mutual respect and understanding. A commitment to our fundamental mission was greater than our differences. While differences remain between the parties, I pray that Jesus’ prayer for unity in Him and His truth will one day find expression throughout the Church.”

Under the agreement, the parties agree that the nine parishes own the legal title to the “real and personal property” of the churches, while the Episcopal Diocese has “trust beneficiary rights” in the “historic” real and personal property of the churches – the assets prior to the breakaway.

The nine parishes will “continue to use the church buildings and other real property that is part of the Historic Property for their Christian worship and ministry,” the agreement says, while the Episcopal Diocese “may make use of the . . . historic church buildings to meet pastoral needs consistent with the shared history, Christian heritage, values and beliefs of the Parties, or to engage in joint ministries with the Parish.”

The churches have agreed to pay an annual fee to the Episcopal Diocese, equivalent to 3.25 per cent of their operating revenues during the previous calendar year. After 20 years, this will fall to 1.75 per cent. The agreement also includes provisions addressing what will happen if one of the churches “discerns the need to cease its use of any of the Historic Real and Personal Property, so that the Episcopal Diocese is able to take steps to preserve and protect its beneficial interest”.

The agreement has obtained the necessary approvals by the Episcopal Diocese and each of the nine churches. Before it can come into effect, the parties will seek the approval of the Attorney General and the Allegheny County Court.

“Subject to the required Court and administrative approvals, the Agreement provides a way for the Episcopal Diocese and the Parishes to go forward with their respective principal missions and ministries with clarity as to their rights and obligations regarding the church property,” the statement says.

“By resolving these issues of ownership and use of church property, the Agreement allows the Parishes and the Episcopal Diocese to continue in their ministry without supporting or engaging in lawsuits involving the other. Both the Episcopal Diocese and the Parishes followed lessons contained in the Gospels and all of Scripture in reaching this Agreement.”

The nine parishes which are the subject of the agreement are St Peter’s Anglican Church, Butler; St Mary’s Church, Charleroi; Christ Church, Fox Chapel; Christ’s Church, Greensburg; St Alban’s Anglican Church, Murrysville; Church of the Ascension, Oakland; St Stephen’s Church, Sewickley; St Peter’s Church, Uniontown; and Trinity Church, Washington.

Elsewhere, the question of the ownership of breakaway churches in the US continues through the courts. This month, the breakaway Diocese of South Carolina has asked the US Supreme Court to review rulings in the State courts that property, assets and most of the diocese’s parishes must remain with the Episcopal Church, saying that the Justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court did not approach the issue on the basis of “neutral principles of law”. They are waiting to hear whether the US Supreme Court will accept their petition.

The disputes in the US arose when some churches broke away from the Episcopal Church over disagreements about biblical authority and theology, primarily centred on disputes about sexuality. Many have organised themselves around a new church, called the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA). ACNA is not a member of the Anglican Communion.

The US-based Episcopal Church (TEC) remains a full member of the Communion. But in January 2016 the Anglican Communion Primates asked that members of TEC should not represent it on ecumenical dialogues and leadership roles because of its decision to change its canons to recognise same-sex marriages in a way inconsistent with the recognised theology of the majority of the Communion. The Scottish Episcopal Church recognised that it was subject to the same consequences as a result of its decision last year to follow suit.

At the Primates’ request, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, established a task group to look at ways of restoring relationships, rebuilding mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, and exploring the deep differences that exist within the Anglican Communion over the issue.