Warring Pittsburgh Anglicans come to terms in battle over church property

The US-based Episcopal Church's diocese of Pittsburgh and the breakaway Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh have announced a 'comprehensive agreement' over the future of nine parishes which seceded from the diocese in October 2008, the Anglican Communion News Service (ACNS) reported.

A joint statement said that the agreement 'resolves disputed questions over the ownership and use of the church property that have lingered since the congregations voted to leave The Episcopal Church'.

The nine parishes and the Anglican diocese of Pittsburgh are part of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), a rival conservative province to the Episcopal Church. 

Christ's Church in Greensburg is one of nine breakaway parishes to have come to an agreement with the Episcopal Diocese of PittsburghWikimedia

The agreement was reached after 'years of confidential negotiations and intense consideration by representatives of all parties' with the assistance of two professional mediators, the statement said.

At the heart of the negotiations was the question of whether parishes that seceded from the Episcopal Church could take their buildings and other property with them. 

The Episcopal Church's bishop of Pittsburgh, Dorsey McConnell, said: 'Even though the issues resolved here originated through division and were often the cause of great pain, we know that as Christians we are called to be ambassadors for Christ and ministers of reconciliation, first among ourselves, and then with the larger world.

'The Episcopal diocese and the parishes have come to recognise that our mutual desire to live according to the Gospel and to share with others the Good News of Jesus Christ far outweighs any differences we have with each other, and this agreement frees us to carry out that mission as we believe God is calling us to do.'

The ACNA bishop of Pittsburgh, James Hobby, said: 'I feel that the settlement is quite remarkable, given the litigious culture in which we live. Clearly, hard work and difficult conversations were part of the negotiations. But, biblical principles and a shared commitment to follow Christ provided a healthy context for pursuing the discussions with mutual respect and understanding. A commitment to our fundamental mission was greater than our differences. While differences remain between the parties, I pray that Jesus' prayer for unity in Him and His truth will one day find expression throughout the Church.'

ACNS reported that the parties agree that the nine parishes own the legal title to the 'real and personal property' of the churches, while the Episcopal diocese has 'trust beneficiary rights' in the 'historic' real and personal property of the churches, meaning the assets prior to the breakaway.

An annual fee will be paid by the churches to the Episcopal diocese, equivalent to 3.25 per cent of their operating revenues during the previous calendar year, according to the agreement. After 20 years, this will fall to 1.75 per cent.

The agreement also includes provisions over what would happen if one of the churches 'discerns the need to cease its use of any of the Historic Real and Personal Property, so that the Episcopal diocese is able to take steps to preserve and protect its beneficial interest'.

Before the agreement can come into effect, the parties will seek the approval of the Attorney General and the Allegheny County Court.

Elsewhere this month, the breakaway diocese of South Carolina has asked the US Supreme Court to review rulings in the State courts that property, assets and most of the diocese's parishes must remain with the Episcopal Church, ACNS reported. That diocese said that the Justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court did not approach the issue on the basis of 'neutral principles of law'.

The disputes arose when some churches broke away from the Episcopal Church over disagreements about biblical authority and theology, mainly over issues relating to sexuality.

The US-based Episcopal Church (TEC) remains a full member of the Anglican Communion. However, in January 2016 the Anglican Communion Primates asked that members of TEC should not represent it on ecumenical dialogues and leadership roles because of its decision to change its canons to recognise same-sex marriages in a way that is inconsistent with the recognised theology of the majority of the Communion. The Scottish Episcopal Church also recognised that it was subject to the same consequences as a result of its decision last year to follow suit.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, established a task force to look into ways of restoring relationships, rebuilding mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, and exploring the deep differences that exist within the Anglican Communion over the sexuality issue.