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TEC: David Booth Beers Emerges From The Shadows As Schori's Legal Doberman


News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

The title of Presiding Bishop had barely been conferred on the head of Mrs. Katherine Jefferts Schori, the new Presiding Bishop, when from the shadows emerged the figure of David Booth Beers, now her chancellor, to play a new, unaccustomed public role - that of legal Doberman with a no holds barred approach to property disputes.

For the nine years that he was Frank Tracy Griswold's chancellor, Beers was restrained, staying in the shadows, refusing to return phone calls, maintaining a low profile, largely because Griswold kept a muzzle on his legal pit bull. He was there, but he was not there.

With the ascendancy of Mrs. Schori to lead the church, Beers has taken on a more public role, leaping almost breathlessly into the fray over property ownership; in turn advising, bullying, coercing and threatening.

Just four days before Mrs. Schori's investiture Beers brought pressure to bear on two traditionalist dioceses, Fort Worth and Quincy (IL). In letters to the dioceses, he asked them to change language in their governing regulations that can be read as undermining "unqualified accession" to TEC's constitution and canons. Should the dioceses fail to do this, he said, the presiding bishop would "have to consider what sort of action she must take in order to bring your diocese into compliance."

That was just for openers.

Beers was on a roll. On the very weekend that Mrs. Schori was enthroned, Beers made his first ferocious attack at a meeting of the Episcopal Majority in St. Columba's Church in Washington, DC. He had held his peace till then but with Mrs. Schori in control he now apparently felt free to cut loose.

He said that under The Episcopal Church canons, dioceses are "a creature of General Convention" and "can't leave" TEC or align with another Anglican province without the convention's okay.

Flanked by Sally Johnson, chancellor to the president of the House of Deputies, Beers said that the 1979 "Dennis Canon" (Title I, Canon 7, Sec. 4), declared that all parish property is held in trust for the diocese and national church, and other canons that Johnson said deal with dioceses and the church's polity. She asserted that (as church lawyers have frequently argued in court) TEC is a "hierarchical" (as opposed to congregational) church, and courts therefore generally defer to the denomination in property disputes.

On that occasion Beers discussed instances of litigation that had arisen in the last few years after congregations had sought to leave TEC with their church building. He said that the TEC had prevailed in all situations that had already been decided except for one in Los Angeles (involving three parishes), although there have been some unfavorable developments in cases in San Diego, South Carolina and Central New York. Beers said at the time that he expects the Los Angeles decision to be overturned on appeal and a favorable final verdict in the other cases. In fact that has not happened and because of "neutral principles" that seems most unlikely.

He also said that church officials were watching four other potential church property conflicts, which he did not identify. (Interestingly enough the case against the Diocese of San Diego was again thrown out this past week when the court ruled in favor of St. John's Anglican Church and rejected the corporate takeover bid by Episcopal Diocese of San Diego.) Click here for the full story: http://tinyurl.com/to6p4

But Beers stuck to his guns maintaining that this was not an epidemic; "it's not a flow of victories" for conservatives, he said. He also noted that, of the total number of congregations that have quit TEC in recent years, more have not tried to take property with them than vice-versa.

But what Beers omitted to say was that while the parishes might seem few in number the numbers of parishioners leaving was disproportionately high. One parish, Christ Church, Plano, that had fled the Diocese of Dallas and the national church for instance, has more active parishioners than the entire Diocese of Nevada!

When confronted by Christian Challenge reporter Auburn Traycik about future uncharted legal territory, and asked if courts might judge church property cases differently, might TEC's claim to be hierarchical take on a different legal hue, if Anglican primates - a higher hierarchy - deem TEC out of the Communion, placing it in violation of the preamble to its constitution?

"I don't think it would change anything," Beers told TCC privately. He said that "they" (presumably potentially seceding parishes) have "committed themselves to the Episcopal Church."

But Johnson did speculate during a workshop that conservatives might in future argue that the hierarchy goes up to the top of the Anglican Communion and "litigate the meaning of the preamble," which declares that TEC is a "constituent member" of the Communion. The opposite argument, Johnson said, is that "our hierarchy goes up to General Convention and stops there." She added: "I don't know how this will play out."

This issue of how high the hierarchy goes has been a sticking point with Dr. Louie Crew, the Episcopal Church's lay premier sodomite, who first noted that if such an argument could be substantiated in a court of law, then the buck does not stop with 815 2nd Ave., but goes right up to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself who might just see things differently for revisionist ECUSA bishops caught in property disputes with orthodox parishes.

But the legal knives were drawn when it was announced recently that two large, highly visible parishes, Falls Church and Truro in the Diocese of Virginia said they would enter a 40-day process of discernment and consider their future within the Episcopal Church.

This was the ultimate red rag to David Booth Beers.

Up to this point Virginia Bishop Peter James Lee had shown himself to be receptive to alternative oversight for some of his parishes and had, in fact, cut a deal with one parish, Christ our Lord Episcopal church in Woodbridge which evolved into New Christ Our Lord Church in Woodbridge affiliated with an Anglican Province. A deal was cut and everyone went away happy.

Then the issue of two parishes with properties valued at more than $27 million and some 4,000 congregants emerged on the horizon, voting to recommend separating from The Episcopal Church. This represents some 20 percent of Virginia's Episcopal worshippers. If all go the number of communicants is 14 percent, says the Bishop. Fr. Yates maintains that the figure is closer to 20 percent.

Behind the scenes, and without fanfare, the two sides had been working on a protocol in the eventuality that they might leave the diocese and denomination. A 40-day process of prayer and discernment then began for both churches.

The Vestries of Truro Church, Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church, finally announced that their congregations had decided to sever ties to The Episcopal Church following the "Discernment" period.

Bishop Lee said he was very, very sad that the vestries were going to recommend to the congregations that they sever ties to The Episcopal Church" and in a letter to the congregation the Rev. John Yates, rector of Falls Church communicated his feelings.

Yates told his congregation that he was following a protocol approved by the Diocese that set out a procedure for congregations considering whether to sever ties with The Episcopal Church.

But then, without notice, the diocese suddenly backtracked. Patrick Getlein, Secretary of the Diocese said there was no approved protocol. "The Executive Board and Standing Committee both voted to receive the report but it is inaccurate to say it was endorsed or approved," explained Mr. Getlein. And this despite the fact that the report of the Special Committee set up by Bishop Lee in late 2005 contained a section entitled Protocol for Departing Congregations.

Col. Jean Reed, president of the Standing Committee, echoed Getlein saying "There is no protocol". He said The Standing Committee intended to meet with those churches proposing to separate from The Episcopal Church and review their situations on a case by case basis.

An insider who asked not to be named told VOL that the Diocese of Virginia's goal on both sides was a peaceful, amicable, charitable approval by both the bishop and the Standing Committee and this was concluded Nov. 9 without dissenting vote and amendment.

So what happened? Enter David Booth Beers.

Said the source, "obviously Beers, whose office is in Washington, DC and next door to northern Virginia didn't like what was going on and told Lee so.

As a result on December 1 Lee hauled several conservative leaders over the coals and on the same day sent a scorched earth letter to those parishes considering leaving the TEC, stating his concern that any decision to leave the Episcopal Church "will be a source of regret for future generations."

The letter also explained some of the potential legal and canonical consequences of a decision to separate from the Episcopal Church, addressing issues of property and personal liability. "Along with the damaging effects any split would have on the Diocese as a whole and these churches in particular, we are concerned that these congregations may not fully understand the potential legal consequences of their actions," said Russell Palmore, chancellor of the Diocese of Virginia. "The decision to leave the Diocese should be a fully informed one."

This was a bombshell to the two departing parishes who though they had a deal in the works.

On December 2, Falls Church and Truro Church issued a response to Bishop Lee's bombshell "expressing profound disappointment and sadness" but they made it abundantly clear that they would not back down however egregious the decision of the bishop might in the future be. The two churches stiffened their responses and wrote back to the bishop saying that his letter appeared to undermine months of hard work and prayerful efforts by his own leadership and their congregations to reach agreement.

They urged Lee to step back from the tragic course they were about to embark on.

"We desire to continue to act consistently with the process and protocol of the Special Committee Report, which does not provide for any intervention from the national church, and urge the bishop to meet personally with us at his earliest convenience," they wrote.

The sudden change in Bishop Lee's tone from the Standing Committee meeting of Nov. 9 to Dec. 1 shocked many on both sides of the discussion. Lee began using the Diocesan newspaper mailing list to reach individual members and by-passing his clergy to try and persuade them to rethink their position.

The inside source told VOL that several members of the Standing Committee and the Executive Board of the diocese got irritated at Beers' sudden interjection of the national church into a Virginia protocol and concords and saw it as both egregious and unnecessary, mindful too, that it was former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold who had said, some four months earlier that property matters were entirely a diocesan matter and not a national church issue. But with Griswold gone and Mrs. Schori giving Beers his head, things were about to change.

Mrs. Schori had emerged from a small diocese in the west and she meets the formidable David Booth Beers, who, with his legal smoothness says 'so let me handle this for you.' She had no past experience in these issues and Beers saw an opportunity and took off with it. She has no experience and appears to rely on Beers more than Griswold.

The truth is the canons do not give absolute authority over a diocese to the national church, but the Dennis Canon says all properties are held in trust for the national church.

In 1973 the courts adhered to neutral principles regarding property issues. The dioceses were there first and created the national church and came together to form the national church and not the other way round. "David Booth Beers and his legal ilk believe the reverse; that the National Church has sole control." But the truth is the Episcopal Church is a loose confederation of dioceses, said another legal observer. It is not nearly so cut and dried as the National Church thinks.

This idea has also been challenged as historically untrue by retired Eau Claire (WI) Bishop William Wantland, a lawyer and canonist. Wantland pointed out that General Convention was organized by pre-existing dioceses, and still treats new dioceses seeking admission as pre-existing entities. "General Convention does not create dioceses - it simply admits into union with itself those dioceses which ask to be admitted," he said.

In the Diocese of Virginia about 20 parishes are said to be considering their future with the diocese, with some nine parishes voting this week. It is pretty well guaranteed that all will vote to go.

Lee is frustrated VOL was told. Lee reportedly asked Beers 'is the national church going to pay for all the lawsuits you want.' We have no idea of the answer.

If the Diocese of Virginia proceeds with the protocols cut with parishes who buy their way out, the diocese stands to make literally millions of dollars. Falls Church and Truro together are worth $27 million and there would also be no legal expenses if they follow the protocol.

If on the other hand Beers creates a fight by demanding the diocese goes to court the question is who will pay the bills? The diocese does not want to pay all those legal bills for court cases, cases they could lose and they will get nothing in cash and be out the legal bills if that happens.

If the Diocese wins in court they still have the legal bills to pay with a lot of properties they can sell but could not entice congregations back to fill and support these now huge, empty mausoleums. It is a lose-lose for the Diocese of Virginia.

But Beers apparently wants a fight that Bishop Lee does not necessarily want. The question remains who is going to pay for the fights for some 20 parishes, the Executive Council of the TEC or the Diocese of Virginia?

If the diocese goes to court and loses, Lee has to pay court costs and legal bills and for his troubles gets nothing at the end of the day. Just ask Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison. He has a beautiful, historic church in St. James the Less which is closed and he has to pay to keep the place up. He also spent nearly a million dollars to get rid of Fr. David Ousley. His victory was entirely pyrrhic.

But if the diocese cuts a deal and collects some portion of the value of the properties, they become financially rich, and can use the money to presumably start new congregations elsewhere in the diocese.

It hardly matters to Beers. He is sitting in a safe place and letting the contestants fight it out while he collects $350.00 hour.

The two parishes, Truro and Falls Church have been working on a Protocol for a year. And now it has been rubbished by the diocese. VOL was told that they have hired an internationally respected law firm with offices around the world including Washington DC. These attorneys have a deep understanding of Virginia property laws, VOL was told.

For Beers the game might be to win the properties, but the victory will be entirely hollow. The diocese will lose 4,000 dues paying Episcopalians anyway the legal outcome is cut, and not even a lawyer as slick as Beers can win them back with his or Mrs. Schori's "gospel".


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