As anyone who has ever been involved in the litigation of one will tell you, intra-church disputes are the worst. Disputes within a religious congregation involve deep-seated beliefs about everything from the control of church assets to the very nature of belief and worship, itself. Argument gets passionate because it’s not about base things like money. It’s about the reason to be and the reason things are. From a legal standpoint, they are also a sticky thing. They involve the First Amendment—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association—and a whole lot of other stuff that is just plain messy. When you introduce ecclesiastical law—the rules churches make to govern themselves and that courts, under the aforesaid First Amendment, have very little business messing with—things get even stickier.
Most of the time, litigation—both at the trial and the appellate level—deals with the issues that are of genuine concern to the parties. One side goes away happy; the other goes away sad. Sometimes both of them go away sad. But, as a general rule, the case gets resolved in one way or another because the court digs down to the root of the problem and makes a decision. Inevitably, someone (sometimes, everyone) is unhappy with the decision, but that’s what happens when you place your satisfaction in the hands of a neutral party.
And then there are those times when everyone talks about a lot of different things, but the real source of friction—the elephant in the room—gets ignored. Such was the case in the recent Austin court of appeals decision in Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas. Having already raised race as an issue on this blog, religion seems like a logical next step, so if your sensibilities were offended the last time around, you might want to tune out now.
The appeal arose from a property dispute among parishioners of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo, Texas. In late 2006, a majority of the Good Shepherd parishioners voted to withdraw the church from the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas and, instead, affiliate the church with the Diocese of Uganda, Africa. Effective January 6, 2007, the Rev. Celia Ellery—a woman—was appointed priest-in-charge of the church. Is this a coincidence?
The “flying bishop” phenomenon is now a less-than-rare occurrence in both the Anglican and Episcopal churches. When a congregation decides that it doesn’t like a decision of its current bishop, it tries to withdraw itself from its geographical diocese and connect itself with another one that shares its particular view of scripture and philosophy. Since the churches began ordaining women—and now, the first openly gay bishop in the United States Episcopal church—the maneuver is more common, and it was the tack taken by the breakaway parishioners.
In reviewing the record, the Austin court observed that the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical one, and property like church buildings, etc., is owned, not by individual parishes and churches, but by the broad corporate entity that is the Episcopal Church. So when a group like the parishioners of Good Shepherd decides it wants out, the Church has the option of saying, “fine, but leave the keys.” That’s what it did in this instance.
The Austin court did what it could with this case. It examined the arguments from the standpoint of both deference to an ecclesiastical decision and applying neutral rules of law. While the deed to the property was made out to “Good Shepherd Episcopal Church,” the court concluded that—because of the hierarchical nature of the Episcopal Church—the Church and its parishioners were not one and the same. Indeed, because of their voluntary accession to the canons of the Episcopal Church, the court held in essence that the parishioners were the Church only so long as they remained a part of the larger Church body. Thus, their split from the Episcopal Church ceded any right they might have had to the church property. As far as ecclesiastical deference was concerned, the argument was easier. The larger Church body claimed title to the property under its established rules and thus, it retained title to the individual church property.
But the elephant in the room—a fundamental disagreement over the proper role for women in the priesthood—went unaddressed. That was no fault of the Court. Indeed, courts are singularly ill-equipped to address such disputes as they run deeper even than our fundamental notions of law and order. Our court system has its limits, and deep-seated matters of religion and philosophy are among them. There are times when going to war or going to court is simply not the answer.