Court To Decide Fate Of Church building

On the surface this chapter in the bitter battle among members of the Anglican Church in Connecticut is about a building.

But the oral argument before the Connecticut Supreme Court last week is another casualty of an eight-year-old theological battle partly over the acceptance and ordination of gays in The Episcopal Church, which is part of the global Anglican Communion.

The spark that ignited the battle came in 2003 when V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay and non-celibate priest, was elected as bishop of  The Diocese of New Hampshire. And Robinson recently announced his plans to retire.  His appointment nearly a decade ago prompted the exodus of several conservative Episcopal congregations in Connecticut, which later became known as The Connecticut Six.

The fallout from the battle has pitted worshiper against worshiper, congregation against congregation. And now the state’s highest court is being asked to decide if the members of the Bishop Seabury Church of Groton (one of The Connecticut Six) own the church they have been worshiping in for the past 35 years, or it is owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.

In March, the trial court determined that Bishop Seabury is now and always has been a part of diocese and as such, the property of the parish is held in trust for The Episcopal Church. But the 300-member congregation appealed, arguing that it built the structure with its own funds, and did it without getting into any debt – all without help from the diocese. Similar lawsuits have been waged across the country as local parishes attempted to keep properties after breaking from the national church.

“The interesting thing too, is that we never asked the diocese for any help or permission to build it. They weren’t involved in the building at all,” said Rev. Ronald S. Gauss, senior associate rector of Bishop Seabury, noting that an intricate addition was added on to the building in 1998. Bishop Seabury has no mortgage.

He says that while the physical church is meaningful to his congregation, theology is the bigger, more distressing issue.

“We literally just want to continue with what we’ve been doing for the past 135 years (which was when Bishop Seabury was established),” Gauss said, adding that the diocese moved away from the church, and not the other way around.

“It didn’t just happen with the election of a homosexual bishop. That was just one stone on the pile. The church has been changing for a long time. How can they just change their theology and just assume we’re going to go with them?”

For example, in the late 1970s The Episcopal Church adopted a newer, more contemporary liturgy, abandoning The Book of Common Prayer that was set forth by the Church of England in 1662. Also in the 70s, the church began ordaining women, wedging a wider theological gap across the country. Today one in four Episcopal clergy are women, according to ReligionTolerance.org. In 2006 Katharine Jefferts Schori was elected as the first woman primate of the Anglican Communion in the U.S.

Because of these disagreements, several churches left The Episcopal Church and in 2009 formed their own governance, The Anglican Church of North America. Today some 600 parishes across the country belong to the denomination, which receives Episcopal oversight and spiritual care from Anglican Provinces in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, South America and Uganda.

Four of the Connecticut Six have joined the Anglican Church, including Bishop Seabury, New Hope Anglican Church in Watertown, Holy Trinity Anglican Church of Bristol (formerly part of Trinity Church) and Christ Church of East Haven (formerly part of Christ & The Epiphany).

Many left St. John’s Church in Bristol, but those who stayed remain in the building and the parish seem to be doing OK and hasn’t left the diocese. St. Paul’s Church in Darien is still part of The Episcopal Church but are not operating under the direction of the bishop.

Though the churches left the diocese, Connecticut is still home to about 80,000 Episcopalians who belong to Connecticut diocese.

For those unfamiliar with the Anglican church, it started in England because Pope Clement VII refused to grant King Henry VIII a divorce from Catharine of Aragon, and it became the official religion of the Crown. Many battles were fought over religion between Episcopal and Catholics because Henry challenged Rome’s authority. The Episcopal Church is the official name of the Province of Anglican Communion in the United States, and was formed shortly after the American Revolution in the late 1700s.

Comedian Robin Williams once said the Episcopal faith was “Catholic light – same rituals, half the guilt.”

While Episcopalians believe in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds like Catholics, they also recognize freedom of conscience, which is defined as a person’s moral judgment upon oneself.

The religion is considered to be half-way between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and has played a leading role in the progressive movement since the 1960s – first ordaining women, and now gays.

Rev. Alex Dyer, an openly gay Episcopal priest and rector of St. Paul & St. James in New Haven, says that’s the beauty of The Episcopal Church.

“One of the greatest strengths about the Episcopal church is the whole diversity of views,” he said in a previous interview. “The Episcopal Church, in its history, has not been a very dogmatic church. It’s been a church that’s allowed people to question, to have doubts and fears, and all that, I think, is a part of a healthy and mature faith.”

Yet changing theology remains a point of contention. What was once known as The Connecticut Six have been hushed for quite some time, but it’s evident that scars from this schism remain, particularly to Bishop Seabury.

Perhaps this story will finally be still because Gauss and the Diocese do agree on one thing – this battle is coming to an end once the court makes its decision, which probably won’t be for a few more months.  It’s been a long, painful road for both parties and the court holds the final chapter in its hands.

Though the battle over this building may at least reduce the level of open sniping in The Episcopal Church, indications show that other protestant denominations are going through similar traumas. The Methodist Church is slowly adopting a liberal gospel of inclusiveness. The Presbyterian Church USA is also experiencing conflict over equal rights for gay and lesbian members. This isn’t the last of this story, it’s just changing shape.

Tracy Simmons is editor of Creedible.com, which is an online magazine that covers religion news in Connecticut. Her new column on CtWatchdog, Ct@Prayer, will cover the consumer aspect of religion in Connecticut, reporting on the good deeds being done at different houses of worship, where they are falling down, and she will be looking into complaints from members of congregations.

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