Friday, July 07, 2006

A Guide to Church Property Law

This new book which has just been published contains the chapter "Considerations Specific to Episcopalians"
by Raymond J. Dague and R. Wicks Stephens II.

Leading scholars, theologians and attorneys from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church (USA), experienced in advising on church property issues, have collaborated to create this timely and useful volume. With clarity and insight, Raymond J. Dague, Peggy M. Hedden, Robert L. Howard, Lloyd J. Lunceford, R. Wicks Stephens II, Thomas C. Oden and Parker T. Williamson furnish essential orientation and share instructive steps to help evaluate and resolve competing claims to church property.


“The Episcopal Church as it was configured at its inception looked a little like the United States under the Articles of Confederation. The parish was the most important and fundamental unit of the church. Parishes were autonomous and quite independent from the diocese. Neither the parish nor the diocese had much sense of the broader church across the country except in name.

“The Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America (often abbreviated PECUSA and later ECUSA) as a “national” church is very much a misnomer. While the various parishes assembled at the first General Convention to band together and adopt a constitution and canons, they did little more than establish a pattern of meetings every three years of deputies from each state, with each state being organized as a diocese. They also began the early steps to adopt a Book of Common Prayer that was an Americanized variation of the English prayer book.

“Neither this General Convention nor any diocese owned any property or laid claim to any property of any parish in these formative years, nor was there any effort to regulate parish property. Parish property was a matter of local control completely unfettered by the diocese or the ECUSA. As far as real property was concerned, the ECUSA was purely congregational, except that the elected vestry of the congregation rather than the parish congregational meeting was in control of the real estate of the parish.

“In 1821, this changed slightly when a special convention of the church was held that resulted in the New York legislature passing legislation to incorporate “The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” which “Society shall be considered as comprehending all persons who are members of this Church.”

“Even after that corporation came into existence, there was no overarching national church organization. There was just this New York corporation. It was ruled by a General Convention that met every three years, and in between times by a Board of Missions to which “shall be entrusted the supervision of the general missionary operations of the Church, with power to establish missionary stations, appoint missionaries, make appropriations of money, regulate the conducting of missions, fill any vacancies in their number which may occur, and also to enact all by-laws which they may deem necessary for their own government and the government of their committees.”

“The stated purposes did not include any authority or supervision over parish property. The only purpose of this entity was to establish missions and supervise them. Once a “mission” made the jump to self-supporting “parish,” the statement of its purposes as set forth in the 1821 Constitution of the Society asserted no claim to authority over the parish, and no claim over its property. The charter of the corporation was (and to this day still is) silent concerning parish property.”

(Appearing in Chapter Six in A Guide to Church Property Law: Theological, Constitutional and Practical Considerations, © 2006 by Reformation Press. Used here with permission.)


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