Blessed be the lawyers

THE DECISION BY two Virginia congregations to leave the Episcopal Church of the United States and submit to the leadership of a Nigerian archbishop is rooted in a dispute about God's will. But the parting of theological ways inevitably involves things of this world.

The Virginia congregations voted not only to change their institutional allegiance but also to hold on to church property. The latter decision moved the bishop of Virginia to issue a statement asserting the larger church's "canonical and legal rights over these properties."

Both sides in this dispute could end up submitting not to God's law but to man's. When three Episcopal parishes in Southern California broke away from the church, the Diocese of Los Angeles went to court to assert its claim to their property. A judge disagreed, and the diocese is appealing. Nationally, litigation has produced mixed outcomes, including that holy grail of trial lawyers, the settlement.

The theological debate over homosexuality that has fueled the debate in Virginia is a recent one. Last weekend, two prominent congregations voted to "leave" the Episcopal Church of the United States for that of Nigeria, where the archbishop has called acceptance of gay relationships a "satanic attack" on the church. It was the latest fissure in the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion over the ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire and the willingness of some Episcopal clergy to bless same-sex couples.

But Christians have argued about the disposition of property for centuries. Although the earliest followers of Jesus prayed and broke bread in private homes, it wasn't long before the movement began to accumulate assets that eventually included not only basilicas and Bibles but baseball fields and bingo halls.

As the historian James Hitchcock delicately put it, organized religions "have usually been quick to secure their property rights, justifying this on the grounds that material assets are necessary in order to witness the reality of the spiritual."

Maybe so. But when disputes about property arise in this society, they tend to be settled by litigation, a process not known for much turning of the other cheek. Whatever one's view of the issues that have split the Episcopal Church, civil lawsuits over the disposition of pews, altars and prayer books seem more than a little like rendering unto Caesar the things that are God's.

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