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Episcopalian Evicted and Vestry Vacated

James W. Cushing, Esq. on 11/9/2011

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As he was leaving Canterbury Cathedral on December 29, 1170, King Henry II of England, frustrated with Archbishop of Canterbury St. Thomas à Becket, mumbled under his breath those fateful words [w]ill no one rid me of this turbulent priest? Four knights who accompanied the King heard his grumble and, later that same day, returned to the Cathedral and martyred the great Saint on the stairs leading to the quire. Fortunately for the Rt. Rev. (now Bishop) David Moyer (Bp. Moyer), the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania was able to rid itself of him in a much less bloody way, but it took a rather impressive amount of litigation to do it.

Over the last decade or so, due to theological division, with the Episcopal Church (Episcopal Church or National Church) choosing to proceed down a wide and liberal road and the orthodox within it choosing to proceed down a narrow and traditional road, a variety of civil litigation has emerged across the country between the Episcopal Church and the orthodox within it. The litigation has mostly regarded the status of church property held by an orthodox congregation within a liberal diocese, the status of an orthodox diocese within the liberal National Church, or the status of an orthodox clergyman relative to a liberal bishop above him.

The issues described above in general have been raging since about 2002 specifically in Montgomery County Court between Bp. Moyer, who was once an orthodox Episcopal priest and rector of the parish Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont (Good Shepherd), and the liberal Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania (the Diocese) and its equally liberal diocesan bishop, Rt. Rev. Charles E. Bennison (Bp. Bennison). I have written about the above issues and the litigation between Good Shepherd, Bp. Moyer, and the Diocese and/or Bp. Bennison previously in Upon Further Review. With regard to the issue of property ownership, my January 9, 2009, article National Church v. Regional Diocese: Property Ownership by a Religious Institution (which can be found here), described the legal issues surrounding the property disputes within the Episcopal Church. My March 9, 2009, article Episcopalian In-Fighting Spreads to Montgomery County Courthouse (which can be found here), described the legal issues surrounding the defrocking of Bp. Moyer by Bp. Bennison.

Although the precise issues in the above cited articles are slightly beyond the scope of the instant article, they certainly can help the reader get a clearer picture of the legal landscape over which Good Shepherd, the Episcopal Church, the Diocese, Bp. Moyer, and Bp. Bennison have trod in Montgomery County Court to set the tone for the matter described below, In Re: the Church of the Good Shepherd Rosemont, Pennsylvania Incorporated, No.: 09-0609. Suffice it to say here that the Court has essentially ruled that Bp. Moyer is no longer an employee of the Diocese and has no right to engage in clerical functions within the context of the Diocese and/or the Episcopal Church. The matter before the Court in In Re: the Church of the Good Shepherd Rosemont, Pennsylvania Incorporated is the determination of who has rightful control over the property of Good Shepherd and whether Bp. Moyer may reside in the its rectory.

The Diocese and the Episcopal Church (Petitioners) filed a Petition for Citation against Good Shepherd, Bp. Moyer, and members of Good Shepherds parish Vestry (the layman’s governing body) for possession of the Good Shepherd property and the removal of both Bp. Moyer and the Vestry members for attempting to obstruct and/or remove Petitioners from possession and/or control of the aforesaid property. After a complex web of responsive pleadings, including a series of opposing preliminary objections, the Petitioners filed for Summary Judgment against Good Shepherd and it is in the context of summary judgment that Judge Stanley Ott entered the Order at issue herein.

The Court reviewed the history of Good Shepherds property. Good Shepherd was incorporated in 1870 and in the charter for the parish it declared that it was a member of both the National Church and Diocese. The charter is consistent with the canons and constitutions of both the Diocese and National Church which mandate that parish property is held in trust for the Diocese and, in turn, the National Church. The canons and constitutions also prohibit parish property from being alienated without the consent of the Diocese. The deed to the parish was transferred to the Diocese in 1910 but was subsequently deeded back to the parish in 1967 with the proviso that it be used for worship according to the doctrine and discipline of the National Church.

The primary issue addressed by Judge Ott is who or what controls Good Shepherds property. In support of its petition, Petitioners set forth six (6) arguments: (1) Good Shepherd announced that it is no longer a part of the Diocese and/or National Church and was seeking affiliation with another denomination; (2) Good Shepherd continued to employ Bp. Moyer despite his defrocking in 2002 and the Diocesan canons requiring parishes to only employ clergy licensed by the Diocese; (3) Bp. Moyer entered Holy Orders in another denomination; (4) Good Shepherd has employed other priests not licensed by the Diocese; (5) Good Shepherd has used parish assets to support activities to subvert the Episcopal Church and/or the Diocese; and (6) the diocesan canons authorize the bishop, with consent of the Standing Committee (the Diocese’s layman’s governing body), after a determination has been made that a parish ceased to act in accordance with the Diocese’s constitution and canons, to take necessary measures to take over the parish’s property. The Diocese, through both its Standing Committee and bishop, believed that due to the actions of Bp. Moyer and the members of the Vestry, Good Shepherd had ceased to act within the canons and constitution of the Diocese and were taking necessary measures to take over its property.

Good Shepherd, in response to the Petition, answered the above six (6) arguments as follows: (1) it denied that it has determined to sever ties with the National Church or Diocese; (2) it alleged Bp. Moyer, though not licensed in the Diocese, was licensed by other Dioceses of the Episcopal Church, Anglican Communion, and the Archbishop of Canterbury; (3) it alleged parish assets are still used for the benefit of the Episcopal Church; (4) it denied that the Episcopal Church was hierarchical; (5) it denied that Bp. Moyer entered Holy Orders in a different church; and (6) it alleged the applicable canons and constitutions, when read in concert, do not indicate parish property is held in trust. Finally, Good Shepherd provided various arguments that the Diocesan Bishop of Pennsylvania did not have authority, under the canons and constitution, to bring the action against it.

As an initial matter, the Court, due to the United States Constitutions First Amendment guarantee of the freedom to practice ones religion, ruled that it could not inquire into the propriety of the internal governance or administration of the Church at issue. Further, it also refused, on the same grounds, to rule as to whether Bp. Moyer, who received Holy Orders in another branch of Anglicanism, can still be deemed an Episcopal priest. Regardless of the preceding, the Judge did not believe that either of the above was necessary to make a ruling on the Petition at issue. The Court ruled that although a church was involved, neutral legal principles could be applied to resolve the property dispute raised in the Petition without directly engaging any religious issues.

After all of the above were considered, the Diocese elected to restrict the relief it sought simply to a determination that the rector (Bp. Moyer) and the Vestry members be removed. Presumably the Diocese believed that all of the property dispute issues would be moot if it could successfully oust the rector and Vestry members who they believed were actively engaged in separating Good Shepherd from the Diocese and/or the National Church.

In analyzing the Episcopal Church’s structure, the Court found that it is hierarchical in nature, with a National Church having authority over a diocese which, in turn, has authority over a parish. The Court found that the Vestry of Good Shepherd could be viewed as having taken action to attempt to sever Good Shepherd from both the Diocese and the Episcopal Church. The Court, in the previous case, also found that Bp. Moyer had been defrocked in 2002 and is without license to function as a priest in either the Diocese or the Episcopal Church. With consideration of the above findings, the Judge ruled that it is the will of the Petitioners to evict both Bp. Moyer and the Vestry members and that they had authority to do it. The Petitioners decided to oust Bp. Moyer and the Vestry members because of the very divergent theological and ecclesiastical views between the parties and the Court refused to get involved in those issues. As Bp. Moyer is no longer employed by either the Diocese or National Church, and the Diocese, within an hierarchical church, having control over its property, the Diocese simply has the authority to evict Bp. Moyer out of Good Shepherds rectory and remove the Vestry members from their positions.

Due to the Courts ruling, Bp. Moyer must vacate the rectory immediately, and the Vestry members must immediately step down. Like the knights who martyred St. Thomas, the Petitioners herein, with reference to Bp. Moyer and the Vestry members, can say [l]et us away this fellow will arise no more.

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  • 11/12/2011 by Anonymous

    I suggest you go back and read Judge Ott’s order including Ott’s summary of the pleadings from both sides.

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