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Judge rules St. John's can keep assets, properties in five-year dispute with Episcopal Church

Posted: Sep. 11, 2013 9:32 am Updated: Oct. 2, 2013 12:15 pm

By STEVE EIGHINGER
Herald-Whig Staff Writer

St. John's Anglican Parish of Quincy will retain its properties and assets after a ruling by Judge Thomas Ortbal in Adams County Circuit Court that caps a five-year legal dispute with the Episcopal Church of the United States.

"We're pleased that the ruling came down in our favor," said the Rev. Patrick Smith, pastor of St. John's Anglican. "It's nice not to have that over our heads. We never were preoccupied with that or distracted by that, and we're very blessed to have a place to gather for fellowship, but (the ruling) does make our job easier."

Appeals are expected from the Episcopal Church of the United States, which had claimed ownership of St. John's properties and assets after a 2008 vote by the Diocese of Quincy to leave the Episcopal Church but remain in the Anglican Communion. St. John's is part of the Diocese of Quincy, headquartered in Peoria.

The Diocese of Quincy joined about 8,000 U.S. congregations in deciding to leave the church in a dispute over the U.S. Episcopal Church's stand on homosexuality.

"This is absolutely huge," Quincy attorney Tad Brenner, who represents St. John's Anglican Parish, said Tuesday morning. "It's not a parish or a (single) church. This is an entire diocese, and this is the first time this issue has been litigated in this country.

"What has happened will have more than a rippling effect. It's more like a tidal wave."

Brenner says three similar cases -- in California, Texas and South Carolina -- are awaiting trial and will be affected by Ortbal's decision.

Ortbal entered his 21-page decision on Monday after a bench trial that stretched over three weeks in April and May. He wrote that there is no "explicit provision" in the Episcopal Church's constitution or canons specifying that it has supremacy or ultimate authority over a diocese, or that a diocese is prohibited from withdrawal.

"In sum, reviewing the governing documents from a secular perspective, there is no explicit or clearly delineated expression of (the Episcopal Church‘s) claim that the general convention is the ultimate authority or judicatory of the church," Ortbal wrote.

"The church was saying, ‘Once you join, you can never leave,' but Ortbal said you can't show me anything in black and white that tells me that," Brenner said.

The dispute, which has been ongoing for at least 35 years, worsened about 10 years ago because of a larger clash about biblical interpretations. Tensions heightened in 2003, when the Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

At that time, St. John's Episcopal Church of Quincy was part of a growing number of parishes and dioceses around the country taking the first steps toward breaking away from the mainline denomination and placing themselves under the authority of a foreign bishop, most of them in Africa or South America.

Had the ruling not gone in favor of St. John's Anglican, Smith said the church's mission would not have changed.

"We have lot of friends in Quincy who were willing to make their space available to us for an extended period," he said. "It would not have diminished our sense or purpose to spread the gospel of Christ.

"This wasn't a theological issue or an ethical issue. This was a business issue."

Smith, who will celebrate his third year with St. John's Anglican on Oct. 1, said the church has 150 members.

The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide 77 million-member Anglican Communion, but no part of the Anglican Communion outside of the Episcopal Church in the United States condones the ordination of homosexuals.

The Diocese of Quincy has two dozen parishes and missions, including St. John's at 701 Hampshire in Quincy. Leadership in the diocese has traditionally stood on the conservative side of issues. The diocese joined the Anglican Network, a group of U.S. dioceses and churches that disagreed with the direction of the Episcopal Church, early in the group's formation.

-- seighinger@whig.com/221-3377