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PENNSYLVANIA: Anglo-Catholic Parish Sees Victory In Court Appeal Against Bishop


News Analysis

By David Virtue

PHILADELPHIA, PA (9/28/2004)--The Anglo-Catholic parish of St. James the Less, under attack by revisionist Pennsylvania Bishop Charles E. Bennison, got good news from the courts this week.

The PA Supreme Court agreed to hear the parish's appeal in the litigation that the diocese brought against the St. James parish in 2001. Presiding Judge James Gardner Colins issued the ruling in favor of St. James.

The Supreme Court did not have to take the appeal but chose to in this case.

In accepting the appeal the Supreme Court focused the issue on property matters. St. James will contend that The Commonwealth Court decision which had been in favor of the diocese was directly contrary to an earlier Supreme Court precedent.

In framing the question the court asked whether St. James the Less must turn over its property to the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

St. James the Less contends that this presupposes the property belongs to the parish and not to the diocese.

The parish is delighted with the news. Fr. David Ousley, parish priest, told Virtuosity. "We are pleased to see that the Supreme Court is focusing on the judicial precedents which define property cases in Pennsylvania. We did not feel that the lower court paid sufficient attention to the precedent. We look forward to putting our case forthrightly before the Supreme Court."

Mark Jakubik, a Philadelphia attorney said, "I find it most interesting that it will look at whether using a canon which St. James 'never agreed to be bound' by violates the First Amendment. The Court has refused to enter a stay of the Commonwealth Court's order while this new appeal is litigated. Nonetheless, I would certainly see this order as a MAJOR victory for St. James." In other areas of the country, several orthodox parishes are in litigation with revisionist bishops.

The history of St. James' conflict with Bennison and the diocese began in April 1999, when the Anglo-Catholic parish upped and left the revisionist Episcopal diocese and the Episcopal Church USA. The vote by the parish was unanimous. The parish opted for independence and did come under any other ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

In 2001 the diocese filed a lawsuit to force the congregation out of its property. Two years later in March of 2003, Judge Joseph O'Keefe of the Court of Common Pleas' Orphan's Court division found for the diocese. The judge invoked a 1935 state statute that
he said entitled Bennison and the Diocesan Standing Committee could retain control of St. James' property. The parish appealed.

In October 2003 the Commonwealth Court handed down a split decision. The majority of the court affirmed the lower court's decision in favor of the diocese, although on different grounds. That decision would have required the congregation to turn over the property to
the diocese, ending many years of ministry in its East Falls/Allegheny West neighborhood. Because of the litigation with Bennison and the diocese, the parish was forced to close its largely African-American urban school.

IN THE Diocese of Missouri, the Church of the Good Shepherd is fighting to keep its property. The Rev. Paul Walter is prepared to go all the way to the Supreme Court against Bishop George Wayne Smith for what he believes is his parish's right to own what they built and paid.

Three parishes in the Diocese of Los Angeles are also under siege by Bishop Jon Bruno.
The most visible parish, St. James Parish in Newport Beach describes itself as a "biblically orthodox, evangelical church with charismatic roots." This past summer most of its members had become gravely troubled by the direction of the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) and the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. Accordingly, the clergy, vestry, and congregation of St. James left ECUSA and the Diocese of Los Angeles and
affiliated with the Diocese of Luweero in the Church of Uganda.

The bishop maintains the property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church. The parish say the land on Via Lido, where St. James Church sits, belongs to a nonprofit organization called The Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James Parish, which was set up in the late 1940s, property deeds show.

The property of a mission is typically held under the name and control of the diocese and its bishop. But in California, the parish is usually organized as a nonprofit corporation run by an elected vestry or board of directors. The rector of the parish, in this case Praveen Bunyan, acts as the president of the church corporation.

In a case involving St. Luke's Methodist Church a California Appellate Court held that a local church owned the property which was held in its name despite the fact that the denomination had a rule imposing a trust on all local church property. This decision, which reaches a different conclusion from that reached recently by another California Appellate Court involving a different church, will undoubtedly, be helpful to St.
James, St. David's and All Saints.

Lord George Carey, the retired 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury recently told an Episcopal congregation in Truro Church, Fairfax, Va. that he objected to the Los Angeles Diocese's move to file lawsuits against the three churches that seceded and placed themselves under the Diocese of Luwero, in the Anglican Union province of Uganda, Africa.

"[Bishop Jon J. Bruno] should recognize that the bishop of Uganda is part of the Anglican Communion," Carey said, according to the website of the Christian Challenge, an independent Anglican publication.

"There's room, therefore, for understanding and generosity without going to the law," Carey said.

The Diocese of Los Angeles, joined by [the Episcopal Church], has gone to court to try to take back the property of the three departing parishes.


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