Commentary by Robin G. Jordan
Who will really benefit from the property litigation in which a number of dioceses and the national church are now involved? Or the threatened lawsuits against bishops who lead their dioceses out of The Episcopal Church and the departing congregations? Will this litigation really secure the use of church property and other assets for future generations of Episcopalians?
The Episcopal Church has been steadily declining. In the past 6 years TEC has lost 173,002 members, or 7.4%, a loss of 1.2% per year. This amounts to an average loss of 28,834 members per year, or losing a diocese the size of the diocese of Ohio per year. It also amounts to losing an average of 79 members per day. In 2005 the average parish in TEC had 174 members. So this amounts to losing an average parish every two - three days for 6 years.
If the dioceses and the national church are successful in their litigation, those who have departed are not going to change their minds and return to the denomination. Whatever happens, TEC will have lost the most important asset—people.
Once thriving parishes will be reduced to mission status. Subsidizing these new missions will place an additional financial burden on cash-strapped dioceses that will also be liable for paying off the building loans and other debts of these churches. A high number of church closures can be expected. The diocese will be tempted to sell off church property whenever and wherever it can. A number of churches will not have enough members left to be viable.
The percentage of churches that rebound from the departure of a large segment of the congregation is not very high. In TEC two or more struggling churches are often yoked together with a single priest serving the yoked churches. What generally happens is the priest devotes his or her energies and time to one of the churches, the one that is the most viable, while providing a caretaker ministry to the other church or churches. The priest rarely has experience in revitalizing declining churches. Even a priest who has such experience cannot be expected to turn around two or more churches at the same time. Without energetic full-time pastoral leadership a church hard hit by the loss of a significant number of its member households has little hope of recovery.
In the Diocese of Pittsburgh we are looking at the departure of 50 congregations. If these congregations are forced to vacate the church buildings, we are also looking at a lot of empty church buildings. Those who do not join the exodus are not going to be able to refill those buildings. We can expect to see extensive church closures. Indeed the Diocese of Pittsburgh will be so greatly weakened that it may loose status of a diocese.
The only ones who are likely to benefit from the property litigation are the lawyers and the real estate developers. Future generations of the Episcopalians are certainly not going to benefit. Indeed the real motivation for the litigation, judging from the Presiding Bishop’s policies articulated by her Chancellor at the recent Executive Council meeting, is to deny the use of the church property and other assets to the orthodox provinces that have offered a safe haven to orthodox congregations fleeing the denomination due to its denial of the authority of the Bible and its rejection of orthodox Christian core beliefs and moral values. The Presiding Bishop apparently shares the cynical opinion of a number of revisionists that what really motivates the provinces that have intervened on the behalf of orthodox Episcopalians is a desire to tap into the wealth of the American church.
Despite her public characterizations of those unhappy with developments in TEC as a very tiny minority, stirred up by a handful of conservative leaders, Schori’s actions suggest that she really believes that disaffected Episcopalians comprise a much larger group. The hard line she is taking against Bishop Duncan and the other bishops who see no future for orthodox Christianity in the denomination is clearly to discourage the migration of more congregations and dioceses from TEC to another province. Schori and her fellow liberal bishops have a very real fear of what they see as efforts to replace TEC with an orthodox province. They will go to great lengths to prevent the establishment of such a province.
The willingness of TEC’s revisionist leadership to depose orthodox bishops and to engage in expensive and prolonged litigation reveals how far they are prepared to go to advance the cause of their radical ideology and to maintain their grip upon the denomination. It is NOT about the property. The property is just a means to an end. Where it serves their purposes, they are willing to make property settlements with departing congregations, relieving themselves of an unwanted financial burden. What it is really about is power, prestige, and furtherance of an ideology.