From the Central Florida Episcopalian, September 2007:

Episcopalians face turmoil over questions of unity

Many Episcopalians dissatisfied with theological innovations in some parts of the Anglican Communion – most notably the practice in some U.S. and Canadian dioceses to ordain practicing homosexual clergy and bless same-sex unions – are searching for ways to preserve the faith as they have received it.

Some are seeking ways to band together to try to leave The Episcopal Church yet remain part of the Anglican Communion; Others are determined to stay in The Episcopal Church, to continue their faithful witness and work building parishes, giving time and talent to mission work, aiding the sick, the needy and the incarcerated, and generally building up the Kingdom of God.

For some of those who would leave The Episcopal Church, a sticking point is property rights. In Florida and elsewhere, disputes over who owns Church property are increasingly clear: Parishes hold property in trust for the diocese and The Episcopal Church.

As Bishop John W. Howe and the Diocese of Central Florida’s legal advisors have pointed out, individuals may leave The Episcopal Church, but if they do, they no longer have any standing to deal with the property of the parishes. If they leave, they are no longer eligible to represent the church as Vestry members.

“If a group of parishioners from one of our congregations determined that out of conscience they had to leave The Episcopal Church, I would do my best to have us say to them, ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’ I would not want to see that become an occasion for deposing clergy, or taking each other to court,” Bishop Howe told Diocesan Convention in 2004.

The Diocese would work to make such a parting as amicable as possible, but even if an overwhelming majority of parish members decided to leave, one or two members remaining or joining at that time would legally constitute that parish.

“We would get about the business of building a new congregation around the remnant of those who, for conscience sake, determined they wished to stay,” Bishop Howe said. The Diocese would not forsake the remaining members in their time of greatest need, but would do anything in its power to support the rebuilding effort.

Florida case law decisions since the 1950s have confirmed the principle that church property is held in trust for the hierarchical organization. In Virginia and California, where historically the law hasn’t been as clear, recent court decisions also conform to the principle.

The Episcopal Church’s national office has indicated its intention to fulfill its obligation by entering into any local legal battles that might arise over parish or diocesan property.

Task Force Created to Study Issues and Make Recommendations

In Central Florida, the Diocesan Board has voted to set up a special task force to study the diocese’s options as The Episcopal Church ponders its place in the Anglican Communion. Specifically, the wider communion’s “Windsor Report” callsfor a moratorium on same-sex blessings and episcopal appointments of those in same-sex relationships.

Even if the House of Bishops won’t agree to all of those terms, a significant group of U.S. bishops, including Bishop Howe, consider themselves and their dioceses to be “Windsor compliant.” In a letter to Central Florida clergy in July, Bishop Howe shared some thoughts on the Task Force:

1. We have done everything that was asked of us by the Windsor Report, the Primates' Communique, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, to remain in full constituent membership in the Anglican Communion. I believe events are now in the saddle, and on the very near horizon is the full meeting of the "Windsor Bishops," followed by the Archbishop of Canterbury's meeting with our House of Bishops. Immediately after that, in fact, partly overlapping it, is Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan's "Council of Bishops" which looks to be positioning itself to become a more structured organization, and (it is widely rumored) could at some point declare itself a new Province. I will be joining that meeting for its last evening and morning. Two days later is the September 30 deadline [for The Episcopal Church to respond to the call for compliance]. As has been said many times, there is no way the House of Bishops as a whole will give the unequivocal assurances we have been asked to give. So, will there be a new Province, or a new Something, recognized by some of the Primates, but not others? If that is the case, what will it then mean to be part of the Anglican Communion? When will the Primates respond to our unsatisfactory response? Will Archbishop Williams agree with them? Will he declare that The Episcopal Church has, in fact, to some degree "walked apart"? And if so, what will he say about those Dioceses within The Episcopal Church that are, and openly declare themselves to be "Windsor compliant"? We can only speculate about all these questions, but we will know the answers to them within the next six months, or so, I believe.

2. In the meantime, I believe we can STRENGTHEN what we say about our relationship to the rest of the Communion, but we cannot WEAKEN what we say about our accession to the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. The Bishop and the Diocesan Board have a fiduciary responsibility to uphold the accession clause

3. I hope you know I am as uncomfortable as any of you are over this disagreement! Do you think I like being subject to the authority of a Church in which many of its Bishops, clergy and lay members have so compromised their commitment to our scriptures and heritage? I find that extraordinarily difficult. But this is the reality of the situation.

4. There is an honorable way of disagreeing with The Episcopal Church (leave, as about 2/3 of St. John's, Melbourne did, "without a single paper clip.") And there is a dishonorable way of doing so (attempt to take "your" property with you). The part of the congregation that departed St. John's, by the way (now "Prince of Peace Anglican Church"), is flourishing, with more than three times the membership they had when they left us.

5. [A Task Force organizer] has quoted back to me the statement that I have twice made publicly, that if we reach the point where it is no longer possible to be both Episcopalian and Anglican, "I will choose Anglican." That remains true, up until the dissolution of the Communion as we have known it (which may be sooner rather than later), and then it becomes irrelevant But, "choosing Anglican" may well mean that I simply need to resign, retire, renounce my orders or transfer to another Province, and relinquish my present responsibilities. There is no way I can imagine that I would or could attempt to remove the Diocese from The Episcopal Church. And should the Board or the Convention attempt this it would be a kind of ecclesiastical Civil War that would be absolutely horrible in every way imaginable. I urge you not to go looking for lawyers who will support a position you would like to see prevail. Look for the best advice you can find regarding what will prevail. I believe we have already received that from [our chancellor and vice chancellor]. I can assure you, there is no one in the state of Florida who has thought more deeply about these issues! If the "compromises" of The Episcopal Church are such that one can no longer remain a member of it, if s/he can no longer function under its Constitution and Canons, then there really is no alternative but to leave: "Go in peace, to love and serve the Lord." But, please do not try to find ways to take property that does not belong to you. That is dishonest and illegal. I am doing absolutely everything I can – and have done so for eighteen years – to uphold "orthodoxy," to remain faithful to the Lord and to the scriptures, to call this oh-so-compromised Church back to its own heritage. But I will not break the rules to do so. I am working "within the system" for a comprehensive solution to a complex situation. These efforts can be easily undermined by precipitous actions, and I urge us to be very careful.