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6,400 Congregation Properties Heisted by Radical Clergy

By Brad Hutt and David Virtue with A.S. Haley
J2B Publishing LLC, 240pp $6.38 paperback
Available at Amazon here: https://www.amazon.com/Great-Episcopal-Church-Robbery-Congregation-ebook/dp/B09XSY1C45

Reviewed by David Duggan
August 19, 2022

I grew up seven miles from the scene of the "Great Train Robbery" in Rondout IL. A whistle-stop hamlet between Libertyville and Lake Bluff in Chicago's northern suburbs, Rondout is known for a scrap metal yard, a Harley-Davidson dealership, and a plaque commemorating the $3 million ($50 million in today's money) 1924 heist from a postal car on the Milwaukee Road railway. The story is one of intrigue, betrayal, incompetence, and dogged determination by the investigating authorities bringing to justice a band of thieves who had staged dozens of bank and train robberies in the 1920s.

So, when David W. Virtue asked that I review his co-written book "The Great Episcopal Church Robbery" (J2B Publishing), I said sure. Maybe there's a tale of intrigue, betrayal, incompetence, and dogged determination.

Intrigue, yes. Betrayal, check. Incompetence, roger that. Dogged, well, I'm dog-tired after reading this book.

But before I begin, let me say that the story of "The Great Episcopal Church Robbery" is a story I've lived through. From every-Sunday-in-the-pews with my family at two Chicago suburban churches in the 1950s-60s, through college, graduate school, employment, law school (none of which caused me to lose my faith); through a re-awakening to the truth of the Gospel as a young lawyer in NYC; to parish and diocesan involvement at almost every level back in Chicago; to disaffection with the state of affairs that causes me to wonder and others to ask, "Why do I stay around"; to being exiled from two Episcopal parishes for being outspoken in my opposition to the gay mafia that has controlled the church for the last 35 years, I have watched as a once proud, once prominent, once proficient denomination has withered on the vine. No longer does The Episcopal Church (what I guess they're now calling the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America in which I was confirmed) command any respect, any support, any allegiance. If The Episcopal Church isn't a downright travesty, it is a shadow of its former self.

The problem with "The Great Episcopal Church Robbery," perhaps like the problem with TEC, however, is lack of focus. There is no narrative arc, no theme that keeps being developed with insight, perspective and a story line that makes you want to slog through its 202 pages (not counting 30+ pages of references). Instead, there are a series of what seemed to this reviewer to be disjointed events not linked by any theme, nor even recounted in a linear fashion.

Perhaps that is in keeping with TEC's polity and "big tent" theology. The old joke about the only heresy in the Anglican (Episcopal) Church is schism (while the only schism in the Lutheran church is heresy) has largely prevailed, but that alone cannot explain the halving of the membership. People have been walking out the door since the Civil Rights movement caused northern Episcopalians to confront the depths of their beliefs in the God who sent His Son to die for our sins. If that death (substitutionary atonement) is true, then Northerners could no longer turn a blind-eye to the problem of racism not only in the Deep South but in their segregated cities as well. Many Episcopalians didn't like hearing that and helped fuel the fire of the mega-church movement that with Willow Creek and Harvest Bible churches got rolling in the Chicago suburbs where I once lived.

"Robbery" starts out well enough with a brief timeline of the events of the last 60 years: Presiding Bishop John Hines (from Texas) declaring that the church would focus on "social" issues (code for women's ordination and acceptance of practicing homosexuals in the clergy--they'd already been there but hidden in the sacristy); the "outlaw" ordination to the priesthood of the "Philadelphia 11" (women) in 1974 and the "regularization" of their ordinations in 1976; the "consecration" of an openly-partnered gay man as bishop in 2003; and the 2006 election of Katharine Jefferts Schori to be the presiding bishop of TEC. But in a second timeline it recounts signal events in the church's history since colonial days. The overlapping of events is important but why have two timelines?

Segueing into an account of the diocese of Northern New Jersey under renegade bishop John Shelby Spong, "Robbery" offers exemplars of the whole church's decline. Struggling parishes were downgraded to "missions" (i.e., under direct control by the bishop) with no autonomy. Buildings were seized and converted into performance space. Endowments were transferred to other parishes, all in hopes that the "broader body of Christ" might survive. But without growth, this has become a way of managing decline. Note to readers: the residuary of The Episcopal Church's carcass is its pension fund which will generously pay out to those priests and bishops who have caused this fiasco.

"Robbery" chronicles the travails of other parishes in other dioceses: Christ Church, Accokeek MD; Truro Church, Fairfax VA; the entire dioceses of Pittsburgh, Quincy (IL), San Joaquin (CA) and Ft. Worth. The theme, if there is one, is litigation, litigation and more litigation under Mrs. Jefferts Schori who evidently missed that day in seminary when St. Paul adjured Christians to avoid resort to the civil courts (I Cor. 6:1-8).

Trying to foist on the courts the fiction that TEC is a "hierarchical" body by which the Presiding Bishop has the authority to control, discipline and even excommunicate not only the other bishops who elected her (a falsehood), but also the several dioceses, individual parishes, priests and laypersons throughout the country, Mrs. Jefferts Schori has been able to bamboozle courts in at least three states (PA, VA and CA) that the national church body is the beneficiary of property held by the parishes (generally the deed runs to "The Rector, Wardens & Vestry of St. What-You-May-Have-It Episcopal Church"--and I have done title searches for IL parishes) in "trust" for their local dioceses, which in turn hold their property in "trust" for the national church. Forget for a moment that this principle violates two of the oldest tenets of Anglo-American law: that you cannot have a "trust on a trust" (that is a trust to benefit another trust which benefits a remote beneficiary) and that a beneficiary cannot declare a trust in its favor without the consent of the "cestui que trust" (that is the person who owns the property that the prospective beneficiary wants to put into trust).

I could go on with the details provided in "Robbery" which make reading it like reading a legal brief. I'm a lawyer by trade and this should be right up my alley, but reading how such-and-such a bishop violated Canon IV.3.1(a) without a reference point to what Canon IV.3.1(a) actually provides, is at best a fool's errand. A simple table of the relevant provisions of TEC Canons and constitution would have helped; legal briefs routinely contain a complete compendium of statutes, regulations, constitutional provisions bearing on the case. Why "Robbery" didn't provide one eludes me.

But maybe that's "Robbery's" point: the law is so convoluted (50 state statutes dealing with trusts, land title and non-profit corporate law, plus federal law that governs trademarks--such as the insignia of a diocese), the courts are so confused, the church leadership so demonic that any attempt to justify or explain TEC's measurable decline is doomed to failure. There are too many actors of pusillanimous character ("intrigue"), too many "inside baseball" dissertations about the theology of gay acceptance ("betrayal"), too many statistics plotting the fall off of plate, pledge and attendance ("incompetence") to qualify as reading for enjoyment ("dogged determination").

"The Great Episcopal Church Robbery" is a good starting point for further research into, and coherent writing about the root causes of, and possible solutions to, the denouement of a church body that many have loved and supported throughout their lives. But I hope that someone will write that book with a narrative arc, tracing the trend lines, providing a unifying theme, and explaining that maybe, just maybe, Jesus hasn't left TEC's building.

David Duggan is a retired attorney living in Chicago.

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