Sunday, January 21, 2007

Clouds of Witness

Got into an interesting argument over who owns a building in The Episcopal Church, over at Fr. Jake's place. The assertion was made that Truro and Falls Church (at least) should be allowed to take their building and go, and the national church should not "spend huge amounts of money on litigation." Of course, under TEC polity and canon law, the diocese owns the building, not the church members. Which prompted this rejoinder:

Rmj - You mean the congregation who happens to meet there now and pays for the upkeep and maintenace of the building, and, given that these Virginia churches are large and wealth, who also pay a Diocesan apportionment? Those congregations who perhaps built the buildings? Or the Diocese who contributes nothing financially to the congregation?

I understand what the canons say. It doesn't mean I think the canons are just.
The most intriguing part of the argument, of course, is that I give to the church because I am purchasing something; or at least my charitable intent carries this salubrious benefit. A curious theology indeed, but not one, I'm afraid, which is entirely alien to most "bog Christians," as the MadPriest calls them. So, under this understanding, church members who put money in the plate don't contribute to the church; they invest in it, like the stock market. They own a piece of the company, apparently, or at least make a payment on the physical assets, a payment which, at some point, entitles them to a property interst in said assets, or even in the real property. An interesting issue when a church member dies, then. If they have a property interest, it passes to their estate, no? If nothing passes, there was no interest ever created. What, then, if they leave? Does that property interest go with them? No, you say? Why not? Is it only there so long as they continue to attend regularly, donate regularly, and happen to have been doing both when they vote with the majority on that fateful day? A perplexingly ephemeral idea of property interest, indeed.

Clearly this idea flies in the face of all settled property law, and indeed makes a mockery of the idea of property law.

Consider a family, with 5 adult children still living at home. The children have even paid for a new roof on the house, and paid to remodel a bathroom. They decide, as the majority, that they now own the house. Do they? Can they claim an interest in the property and the attachments (i.e., personal property which is part of the improvements to the real property)? In what court of law would you bring such a case, and expect to win? Who would consider it "just" for the children to make such a claim in the first place?

There is also the attempted argument (made by someone else at Fr. Jake's) that:

If the diocese were named as owner on the deed, and if it paid for maintenance, utilities, capital improvements, etc, there would be no question as to who owns the building. But the situation is not that plain. Hence, the mext few years are likely to have a lot of property lawyers at work...
Now, by this logic, a tenant in an apartment or a duplex or even a house, gains a property interest simply by paying rent and footing the bill for the utilities. Try that the next time you rent a place you'd much rather buy; I don't think you'll get very far. And by the same token, if I paid to put a new roof on my father's house, that would not give me one sliver of property interst in his house, not even a cloud on the title. Property interests don't follow a line of cancelled checks.

If you want a Biblical parallel in this situation, consider the parable of the prodigal son. The son tells the father, "Give me my portion of the estate." Now, the only claim the son has to the property of the father is at the father's death. So the son is saying to the father, "You are dead to me, and all I want is the property I will have when you die." And the father, rather than slap the son silly, agrees. He divides his property, giving half to one son, half to the other. Now the father owns nothing.

At this point, of course, the jaws of all Jesus' listeners had dropped, and if they heard anymore, that was truly a miracle.

Notice that when the son comes back, the father gives away the property of the eldest son: the fatted calf, the ring, the robe. Remember, the father divided everything. He owns nothing. There is an interesting perplexity in that parable about property ownership.

But can we apply it to the present situation? If so, first we have to decide who owns the property. Is it the church, or the congregation? If the former, who is that? PB Schori? The Bishops? No. It is held by them, but held in trust. For whom? The clouds of witness, that's who. The church eternal, in time and across time: past, present, and future. canon law, property of all sorts held by parishes is held and must be used for the mission of the Episcopal Church through diocesan bishops and governing bodies. As a Church, we cannot abrogate our interest in such property, as it is a fiduciary and moral duty to preserve such property for generations to come and the ministries to be served both now and in the future.
The property does not belong to the people who currently worship in Falls Church or Truro, any more than it belongs to PB Schori. It belongs to the church, and the church is not just here and now but present in the past as well as in the future. PB Schori says they have a fiduciary duty with regard to that property, and she is absolutely right. At law, that is the highest duty one can owe, and it ia always owed to someone else, for your custody and control of their property. You must treat that property with more care than you treat your own; that is the standard or fiduciary duty.

Under the canons of The Episcopal Church, as PB Schori explains it, no church building or grounds belong to any congregation, whoever that congregation may be this year. It belongs to the church, and not just the church this year but the church past, present, and future. It cannot be otherwise, and those who do not understand that are not entitled to a refund anymore than they were entitled to a possessory interest because they put money in a plate in that location rather than in another one. Church is not about purchase and it is not about control and it is certainly not about ownership. It is about duty and obligation and responsibility. It is not about you or me. It is about them: the clouds of witness.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:29 AM

    Dear Brother,


    I am from Pakistan. I have studied your web site, and have found it to
    be one of many wonderful sites offered on the internet which gets to the
    Truth of the Word of God. As is the case with others whom I have
    contacted, you have created material which is full of knowledge
    concerning development of religious faith. Living in Pakistan, we
    Christians face many obstacles in getting access to God's Word. Most
    people in Pakistan speak Urdu, and are not capable of understanding the
    English language. Because of limited access in our native tongue, my
    people have a true hunger for fresh Christian Perspectives.

    Proficient in both English and my native languages, I would like to
    offer my services as a translator to you. Presenting your material in
    both Urdu and Punjabi would be a true blessing to the Pakistani and
    Indian people. For a nominal fee, I will enable you to bring the message
    of Salvation to a most deserving people.
    Blessing you in advance for your consideration,

    In Him,