Trojan Horse Sent Packing from South Carolina

As I have remarked on many occasions, the Dennis Canon, probably (but not definitely) enacted at General Convention 1979, is the Episcopal Church (USA)'s Trojan Horse. Sneaked in under everyone's radar at the last possible minute, it lay dormant for over twenty years before suddenly unleashing its hidden forces to go out and attack unsuspecting parishes. Unable to accomplish anything by itself, it needed the assistance of various State courts and legislatures to achieve its results. And in the process, it has cost the Episcopal Church alone over Twenty-Five Million Dollars, and tens of thousands of lost parishioners, hundreds of parishes, and four entire dioceses. A Trojan Horse, indeed!

Now comes word that the ugly beast has been definitively and decisively banished from the Church's Diocese of South Carolina. After receiving a crippling wound last September from that state's Supreme Court, the creature was sent finally packing by the Diocese and its bishop, when last week they mailed out quitclaim deeds to every single one of their incorporated parishes. The legal effect of such deeds was that the Diocese gave up and released any and all claims ("quit its claim" -- hence "quitclaim deed") it may have had, from whatever source or reason, and however long ago acquired, in those parish properties. Chancellor Wade Logan explained:
For 190 years (1789-1979) there had never been any idea that somehow the parishes did not completely and fully own their property. Our Supreme Court has now said that the attempt to change that in 1979 by the General Convention was not binding on the parish of All Saints, Pawley's Island, SC. In recognition of that ruling, and in continued pursuit of our historic unity based on common vision rather than legal coercion, the Diocesan Convention removed the relevant section from our canons in October 2010. The issuance of these quitclaim deeds lays to rest any lingering issue that may exist for some parishes when they seek to obtain title insurance or secure bank financing for parish projects. Parishes may choose to file them or not based on their individual needs. We trust this action will enable parishes to freely exercise their rights and responsibility to oversee that which God, through the faithfulness of prior generations, has bequeathed to them.
The usual suspects are muttering imprecations against Bishop Lawrence as a result of this brave deed. They of course have to see it as betraying the Episcopal Church (USA), instead of strengthening it. Incredibly, they also see Bishop Lawrence as having made a multi-million-dollar "gift" to the parishes of their own properties! (Apparently they considered that "they" -- the Diocese and the Episcopal Church, and by projection the group of dissenters who is doing all the complaining -- as good as owned them. Well if that was the case, why didn't "they" contribute a single penny to their upkeep? Hypocrites never change, because they are incapable of seeing what everyone else can see.)

"Wait -- how did giving up all its Dennis Canon claims strengthen the Church?" you ask. "Didn't that act make it easier for parishes to leave the Diocese? And won't the Diocese (and the Church) be that much weaker when the Dioceses leave?"

The answer is simple, but first let me switch my metaphors for a moment. Think of the Dennis Canon as a set of chains which ties parishes to their Diocese. In most Dioceses, parishes know that if they try to cut those chains, their Diocese will go after them in court, and try to get the court to award them everything the parish has -- its buildings, altar cloths, bank accounts, candlesticks and anything else that can be itemized as belonging to that parish. In that way, the Dioceses try to make the penalties for breaking the chains too severe for the parishes even to contemplate such an act.

Now think about that image for a moment. What kind of church needs to be held together by chains? Remember that fine old prayer which used to be recited every Sunday? We prayed:
. . . More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.
That's right -- a church is held together by unity of spirit and the bond of peace. It emphatically cannot be kept together by chains and shackles. Thus, by removing the shackles of the Dennis Canon in the Diocese of South Carolina, the Episcopal Church in that Diocese is now strengthened by its parishes being allowed to come together, not because they are compelled to, but because they are free to come together, to be "led into the way of truth, [to] hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life."

As for parishes who wish to leave, nothing the Diocese did or did not do could stop them, after the Supreme Court's decision in the All Saints case. They have been free to leave ever since last September, yet none has done so. The only thing that would have reinstated the chains and shackles after that ruling would have been to force each parish to sign a deed of its property putting it into a trust for the benefit of the Diocese and ECUSA. And if the Diocese could have managed that feat, then the Church never needed to pass the Dennis Canon in the first place.

You see, that is why the Dennis Canon was sneaked through as a last-minute and little-noticed change to the canons: it could take effect immediately, without anyone's being aware of it (except the Rt. Rev. Walter Dennis himself). Had they tried to make it a change to ECUSA's Constitution, it would have had to undergo a three-year vetting process in each and every Diocese, and then come back to General Convention for another vote.

Those who shuffled the Canon under the noses of the deputies at the last minute knew exactly what they were doing: they knew they could never have gotten the parishes' voluntary consent to such a drastic provision if they had to wait three years to ask each and every one of them. So they changed the Canons instead, which required only a quick voice vote (the records of which are now permanently lost from the Archives).

There are those in the Church today, however, who still prefer using the threat of force, and chains and shackles, to keep the parishes so firmly tied to the ecclesiastical structure that they could never think of trying to leave. For them, their abstraction of a Church is a thing in itself, which demands unswerving allegiance by all who call themselves Episcopalians. It also demands all of their Church property, forever.

Remember the oral argument of the Episcopal Church Cases in the California Supreme Court? Justice Baxter asked ECUSA's attorney, Heather Anderson, to imagine a parish which was considering joining the Episcopal Church, but which wanted to be certain it could keep its valuable property in the event the arrangement did not work out. What could such a parish do, he asked, if it wanted to avoid the Dennis Canon but still belong to the Episcopal Church?

Her answer came after an awkward pause, but then it was firm and clear: "The only option would be for that parish not to join the Episcopal Church." And in those fourteen words you will learn all you need to know about the collectivist philosophy of those want to uphold the Dennis Canon: "Join our Church, and everything you have will become ours forever."

As this feature of today's ECUSA becomes more and more known, there will be fewer and fewer new churches established and built within ECUSA, because what donor wants to see the fruits of his or her donation taken over by some bishop and sold, perhaps, to become a mosque? Or, just as worse, sit around empty and forlorn, when those who built it and kept it up could still be using it? It is no wonder that ECUSA's numbers are steadily dwindling -- one reason is that there are not very many new churches being built, thanks again to the Dennis Canon, and the parishes which already belong to a Diocese are getting smaller, instead of larger. Take away the congregation's impression that they own the buildings which they pay so much to maintain, and you find them not so eager to contribute any more.

The Diocese of South Carolina is one of the few mainland dioceses which is actually growing, and not shrinking, so it must be doing something right. Confirming to its parishes that they won their property free and clear is one of those things. (The Diocese of Upper South Carolina was also freed of the chains of the Dennis Canon by the South Carolina Supreme Court's decision, as well. In 2003 they entertained a resolution which would have abolished the Canon, but did not pass it. They might want to reconsider.)

This next Monday, at 8:30 a.m., the Georgia Supreme Court will post its much-awaited decision in the Christ Church Savannah case. We will then learn if the Dennis Canon trumps even the magnificent heritage of Georgia's Mother Church, which predates the founding of ECUSA itself by half a century. If the petty tyrants prevail, watch out for the chains to tighten, and for the forces of intimidation and fear to revel in their grip.

But if the Georgia Supreme Court follows South Carolina's lead, there will be another entire State's Episcopal parishes set free from their bondage, with the ability to breathe once again, and concentrate on their mission, rather than live in fear of losing their properties.

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