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April 18, 2008

Diocese sues Ohio churches that left over gay bishop

Cleveland--The Episcopal Diocese of Ohio is suing five churches that departed over the election of a gay bishop and other issues, saying they cannot take their buildings and land with them.

The suit asks the Cuyahoga County Common Please Court to decide who owns the property, the diocese or the churches.

The departing churches are St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Bay Village, St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Fairlawn, St. Anne in the Fields in Madison, Anglican Church of the Transfiguration in Cleveland and Church of the Holy Spirit in Akron, who all left in 2005.

The churches left after the election of V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the denomination’s first openly gay bishop. He was approved by a 21 majority at the Episcopal General Convention in 2003.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the world Anglican Communion. The breakaway churches are part of a trend among conservative parishes to leave the U.S. church and align themselves with African and South American arms of the communion.

They congregations continue to meet in the buildings they used when they were part of the diocese.

However, church canon states that “parishes hold their property for the benefit of the ministry of the Episcopal Church,” said Martha Wright, communications director for the diocese.

National rightist leaders accuse the Ohio diocese of making an unfortunate decision in litigating before negotiating, but Wright pointed out that it would be pointless negotiating over property before the courts weighed in on who had the power to make the decisions.

“Bishop [Mark] Hollingsworth feels that we can’t go ahead with any negotiations until the courts decide who has the right to make decisions about the property,” she said. “We’re not in any position to negotiate before we know that.”

“The diocese really hopes to achieve a resolution that is agreeable to everybody’s interest,” she continued. “This court issue, we’re trying to have it help us go forward by helping us know who has the right to that property and who has the right to make decisions.”

When the parishes disassociated themselves from the American denomination, “those clergy have been released from their duties as priests of the Episcopal Church, so they function as clergy of other” members of the Anglican Communion, Wright said, adding that they continue to use Episcopal property despite no longer being Episcopal priests.

She also pointed out that conservatives in the Episcopal Church have rankled under changes for decades, and that the it was not simply Robinson’s ordination that led to their exit. She pointed to the ordination of women and even changes in prayer books as sources of conflict within hers and other denominations.

“I think that, with at least some of these five, they’ve been unhappy with a lot of things,” she noted.

Another point she stressed was the limited scope of the defection.

“One of the things I think is important to remember, especially in the face of what the press reports, is, we’re talking about five parishes out of 95,” Wright said.

The Episcopal Diocese of Ohio covers most of the northern half of the state, not including Columbus, stretching from the Indiana border to the Pennsylvania border.

While at a conference in the last month, she spoke to the communications director of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin in California, which formed after the previous bishop disassociated his entire diocese from the national church.

Wright noted that many people in the area were displeased with the now-defrocked bishop’s actions, and have since begun reforming the diocese. The earlier one is now aligned with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone in Argentina.

Bishop Jerry Lamb was elected by local delegates to lead the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin. His predecessor, John-David Schofield, was opposed to the ordination of women and gays.

In 2006, the Episcopal Church selected their first female leader in Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

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