Saturday, September 22, 2007

NFS

Editor's Note: Father Easter's essay was submitted early this month and accepted for publication on September 9. No doubt, some visitors will ask "What the heck does this have to do with the House of Bishops meeting now underway in New Orleans?" We reply: Regardless of the outcome of the bishops' meeting, the regular work of dioceses and parishes will continue. Fr. Easter's essay addresses the discussion of how church property should be disposed, and this is a question that many dioceses are facing and will continue to face.

by the Rev. William B. Easter

Sales of Episcopal Church property are getting headlines these days. We hear stories of the Dioceses of Los Angeles, Virginia, and San Diego where the Church struggles to keep its property from being alienated by people who have left the Episcopal Church. Then we hear of the well publicized "sweetheart deals" in which church property has been sold for what appears to be below market value to departing congregations in Overland Park, Kansas, and Plano, Texas.

Stories about dioceses that sell parish property gives hope to the secessionists. Dioceses that sell property "on the cheap'" are lauded by them as reasonable, pastoral, and orthodox. In contrast, the leaders of dioceses committed to the continuing use of their own property are vilified as insensitive bullies, revisionists holding congregational majorities hostage to the letter of the law. These are the spins that are spun.

What is the cost of this vilification? I believe the defamation involved is a meager cost for what we retain. What we retain is our rightful legacy. We continue to burnish that legacy if we follow a policy. The heart of that policy should be akin to that of an antique shop.

Have you ever been in an antique shop, enjoying the clutter and the aromas of the past's patinas, and suddenly your attention is riveted by a charming piece? Perhaps it has the authenticating maker's mark. Perhaps it is the very same that was in your dear dead aunt's parlor. Alas! your hunt for the price brings you the dreaded news: a label with "NFS" is on it. "Not For Sale" is the shop owner's way of saying what is precious to her or him and what adds beauty to his or her life. The shop owner puts an "NFS" tag on some items because they are too priceless to be sold. In short, not everything has a price. Some things are priceless.

I think this homely example can inform an "NFS" policy concerning church property. Let me count the ways why this may be so.

Most often, a bishop begins the process of sanctifying church property – making it holy – by blessing it and setting it aside with a Trinitarian formula. Then the People of God, often generation after generation, add to the halo of holiness by the constant celebration of the Eucharist, numerous baptisms, marriages, burials, the very cadences of time. To this are added the experiences of grace that come with healing, reconciliation, renewal, and growth, and we perceive a place that has the deep patina of the Holy. In addition, people make their gifts of stained glass windows, patens, chalices, organs, columbariums, and so on. The fact remains that from the very beginning, through it all up to the moment, all took place under the aegis, the umbrella of the Episcopal Church – not from dissenters, not from secessionists, not from the disgruntled, not from the alienated. The genesis of and experiences in a place really do count, measured over the long haul.

How can we possibly treat the church's hallowed property as just another piece of commercial real estate on the market? If that is our bent, why limit ourselves to selling it to the secessionists – especially when they may very well use it as a platform for further disparagement of the Episcopal Church? Why not open up the sale to other Christian traditions or to the other two Abrahamic traditions? Think about it: Could we abide selling our Washington National Cathedral or Canterbury to secessionists? I doubt it. Are the holy places that those leaving the Episcopal Church covet somehow less holy than our cathedrals?

Dioceses' willingness to sell parish property fosters that corrosive attitude of congregationalism, opposed to our belief that we are part of a diocese, a national church, a world wide Anglican Communion, and the body of Christ. The result of this willingness to cede parish property by any diocese encourages the current occupants of a parish to decide they have standing as buyers, a kind of "right of first refusal," as it were. Agreeing to enter into negotiations with such a group disenchanted with the Episcopal Church accedes to them a standing they merely assume they have and raises false hopes in them. When we start to sell our property, we are responsible for raising those false hopes.

Consider this. Why would any church deed over property to folk who wish it harm and to displace it in a wider communion? Why would we deed property to those who also look to intrusive foreign bishops for oversight – those who will continue to act as pirates, sowing discord and making off with more and more of our churches? Individuals are certainly free to leave the Episcopal Church and build another congregation. They just have to do that off the Church's property. Would MacDonald's sell its locations to Burger King in order to further its interests?

Finally, and perhaps most important for the long haul, selling holy places sets a perilous precedent. It encourages those with perceived slights, injustices, and errors to view secession and departure with property as the simple remedy. It would be nice to think that our current cause du jour will be our last. History suggests upheavals are recurrent and have to be lived with and worked through, as we did with the Civil War, Civil Rights, and the ordination of women. Following the rhetoric of those who want to leave and take our property with them, we could have sold away the very churches we now treasure over and over again with each significant change in the way the Episcopal Church has responded to the world. Why aid and abet by selling property to those who care not to stay and tough it out? Rewarding questionable behavior is always a bad investment.

A diocesan policy of "NFS" will allay false hopes, save needlessly wasted time in negotiations, signal to our time and the generations to come what we value as precious – our heritage, the holy places birthed and reared in and by the Episcopal Church, all beyond price.

About the Author: Father Easter served in the Navy six years during WWII and the Korean conflict, mostly as an air traffic controller. He is a graduate of Ripon College (Wisconsin) and a Rockefeller Theological Fellow 1959 graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary. Also he's been director of Human Resources for two Chicago area financial groups. He has served as Rector and Associate Rector in three Texas parishes, where he was a rural dean, elected to a Diocesan Council and did research on sources of clergy restlessness in the late 1960s. He is a trained interim and has served five congregations in that capacity in Chicago and New Mexico and open to more. He is canonically a resident of Chicago and licensed the last 15 years in the Diocese of the Rio Grande.

2 Comments:

Blogger Chris H. said...

A sound and eminently reasonable list of reasons not to sell churches not only to breakaway conservatives, but anyone else.

Unfortunately, across the country diocese are selling churches--and even cathedrals--to secular developers, non-Anglican churches, and yes, conservative Anglicans.

Is Father Easter planning on paying the loans and mortgages on all the shrinking parishes to stop them being sold? All three of the Episcopal churches in my area are having financial difficulties, consolidation and selling of properties is probably inevitable.

Deconsecrating a building built for God's use is terrible.If selling must be done, isn't it better to sell them to other's in the Anglican cosmos than to other churches or developers who will turn them into personal homes, apartment buildings or Starbucks??

If Plano were emptied of the pesky conservative congregation, what would be done with it? The remant mentioned in news reports sounds to small to upkeep such a large area. Wouldn't it be sold too? Or is it just that he hates conservatives so much he'd prefer churches become office buildings or restaurants as long as "they" don't get them.
If TEC were a growing church instead of a shrinking church, the point would be moot.

9/24/2007 8:57 AM  
Blogger Marshall said...

With all due respect, the financial settlement in the case of Christ Church, Overland Park, Kansas, at the time was clearly advantageous to the resources and work of the Diocese of Kansas, and not of the separating congregation. This has only proven more true in the few years since. I cannot speak to the other cases.

I am all in favor of fighting for property where necessary; but also of choosing battles. We need to recall, too, that while these folks are leaving the Episcopal Church, they are not leaving the Body of Christ. As angry as they might make us, they are still siblings for whom Christ died; and that needs to inform our legitimate intent to maintain the property necessary for the mission of the Episcopal Church.

9/25/2007 10:23 AM  

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