From The Living Church:
POSTED ON: October 2, 2009
During the past decade, the Episcopal Church has participated in
approximately 60 court cases concerning property ownership. These cases
involve, to one degree or another, the Dennis Canon, named for the late Rt.
Rev. Walter Dennis, former bishop suffragan of the Diocese of New York. The
Dennis Canon says this:
"All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any parish,
mission or congregation is held in trust for this church and the diocese
thereof in which such parish, mission or congregation is located. The
existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and
authority of the parish, mission or congregation otherwise existing over
such property so long as the particular parish, mission or congregation
remains a part of, and subject to, this church and its Constitution and
The Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled in September that the Dennis Canon
does not apply to the formerly Episcopal parish of All Saints Church in
Pawleys Island, S.C., because that parish predates the Episcopal Church.
Many conservatives have greeted that ruling with joy, and they hope it sets
a legal precedent across the nation.
We are not ready to join the celebration. Conservatives who expect the South
Carolina ruling to establish a widespread precedent ought to ponder the
legal differences between a congregation founded in the Colonial era and one
founded since the establishment of the Episcopal Church.
Further, the Dennis Canon accurately describes the relationship between a
congregation and a diocese, at least within a church that strives, however
imperfectly, for catholic order. Conservatives cannot afford to play a
semantic game that salutes catholic order as a concept (as in the Anglican
Communion's nascent covenant) but rejects it in daily practice because
expensive property is at stake.
We do not believe a property lawsuit is the best response to a
congregation's departure from the Episcopal Church. The number and intensity
of lawsuits involving the Episcopal Church should be a source of shame for
anyone who takes seriously these words of St. Paul: "The very fact that you
have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why
not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves
cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers" (1 Cor. 6:7-8).
In too many cases, the Episcopal Church and departing congregations have
convinced themselves that crushing their opposition is a matter of Christian
stewardship. Both sides depict themselves as victims who have been forced
into lawsuits by malevolent forces. Both sides sink millions of dollars into
legal fees, even while loudly proclaiming how much they would rather spend
these funds on Christian mission.
Amid this chaos, the Dennis Canon becomes the usual standard for sorting out
who has a legitimate claim to property. It is good to have a standard for
resolving property disputes, but the Dennis Canon too often could be judged
by what our Lord had to say about another law: "Moses permitted you to
divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way
from the beginning" (Matt. 19:8).
The emotional and spiritual importance of a church building is undeniable.
Christian faith is incarnational. When Christians worship in the same space,
year after year, that space commands a powerful hold on their imaginations
and their memories. When beloved family members are buried in or near that
space, the emotional stakes are even higher.
That's all the more reason for Christian plaintiffs and Christian defendants
to remember that they are Christians first, and to work for solutions
outside of courtrooms.