THE US Episcopal diocese of Pittsburgh has reached an “amicable” agreement with a group of breakaway parishes over the ownership and use of church property, after a decade of dispute and confidential negotiations.
Nine congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church in October 2008 (News, 9 October 2008) to form the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh, five years after the Episcopal Church in the US ordained its first openly gay bishop.
They were: St Peter’s, Butler; St Mary’s, Charleroi; Christ Church, Fox Chapel; Christ’s Church, Greensburg; St Alban’s, Murrysville; Church of the Ascension, Oakland; St Stephen’s, Sewickley; St Peter’s, Uniontown; and Trinity, Washington.
The congregations have been at loggerheads with the Episcopal diocese over who has ownership of the church buildings.
A joint statement from the Episcopal and Anglican Church of North America dioceses states that the breakaway parishes officially own the properties in which they worship and conduct mission, from the date of the breakaway — 4 October 2008 — but that they are not permitted to sell, lease, or use the property for any other purpose than that for which it was intended when it was created by the Episcopal diocese.
The Episcopal diocese remains a trust beneficiary of this property, however, and each of the breakaway parishes will be required to pay an annual fee to the Episcopal diocese of 3.25 per cent of parish operating revenues for the first 20 years of the agreement, and 1.75 per cent thereafter.
The congregations must also maintain and preserve property and parish records. Receipt by the breakaway parishes of any historic endowments or bequests must also be agreed with the Episcopal diocese.
The Bishop of the Anglican diocese of Pittsburgh, the Rt Revd James Hobby, said that the settlement was “quite remarkable, given the litigious culture in which we live. . . A commitment to our fundamental mission was greater than our differences.”
The Episcopal Bishop of Pittsburgh, the Rt Revd 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. . . This agreement frees us to carry out that mission as we believe God is calling us to do.”
If a breakaway parish no longer uses its property, or seeks to reunite with the Episcopal diocese, the agreement will dissolve, it warns, but any disputes that arise after the agreement must be resolved directly and amicably between the parties.
“If that fails to resolve the dispute, the agreement carefully identifies the path the dispute must follow, which may include mediation, arbitration or a court proceeding, depending upon the nature of the dispute.”
A list of six principles of reconciliation were written into the agreement, including promises not to “damage the heath and future” of both ministries, but to show mutual respect, acknowledging the “private and public impact” of disagreement.
The agreement was reached by legal representatives of the parties: David McClenahan, of the law firm K&L Gates; and the Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh and former Dean of its law school, Mark Nordenberg. It will not come into full effect until the necessary court and administrative approvals have been obtained.