[QUINCY, ILLINOIS] The Diocese of Quincy has petitioned the Circuit Court of Illinois in Quincy to issue a Declaratory Judgment clarifying the rights of the Diocese to hold and manage its endowment funds. The petition was filed in response to actions taken by leaders of the Episcopal Church in New York claiming that trust funds held by the diocese must remain in the Episcopal Church. Quincy formally separated from the Episcopal Church at it annual Synod in November, 2008.
“We hoped from the beginning to avoid any legal action,” said Fr. John Spencer, President of the Standing Committee which oversees the diocese. “Our Fall synod passed a resolution asking the leaders of the Episcopal Church to find ways ”˜in which the two entities might carry out the mission of the church as brothers and sisters in the Lord Christ rather than as hostile parties.’ We sent that to the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop. She never responded. We wrote to the leader of a group of several churches that is setting up a new Episcopal diocese here, asking to meet and talk about the property issues. They said they didn’t have the authority to talk with us.”
Quincy, along with the Dioceses of San Joaquin, Pittsburgh, and Ft. Worth, withdrew from the Episcopal church over the meaning and authority of Holy Scripture and other basic Christian teaching, according to Fr. Spencer. San Joaquin separated in December, 2007, and the other three last fall.
A series of legal actions by the Episcopal Church led to the filing of the Quincy petition this week, Fr. Spencer said. In January, an attorney for the Episcopal Church wrote the bank that holds Quincy’s diocesan endowment funds, claiming that those funds have to stay in the Episcopal Church. The letter also claimed that the elected officials of the diocese no longer had any say in the control of those funds.
In February, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, wrote the members of the Quincy Standing Committee, claiming they were no longer officers of the Diocese. “The problem is,” Spencer said, “she has no authority to make such a judgment. The governing officers of each diocese have always been elected at the local level, and the General Convention officers in New York have no say in the matter.”
About the same time, Spencer said, a group of churches that have broken away from the Quincy Diocese announced they would organize a new Episcopal diocese in central Illinois. An article appeared in the March edition of the Episcopal Church’s official newspaper, “Episcopal Life,” saying the Episcopal Presiding Bishop was giving “extensive guidance” to the churches organizing the new diocese and that the goal of Episcopal Presiding Bishop and other Episcopal leaders was “to craft a lawsuit that is trim and focused on the critical claims involving ownership and possession of diocesan property.”
“It was clear,” Spencer said, “that a law suit was heading our way. From suits they have filed elsewhere, we know Episcopal Church leaders will start by trying to seize our funds, and eventually try to take our churches.”
After lengthy consultation with their legal counsel, the Quincy Standing Committee made the decision to petition the Illinois court to clarify and define the property rights of the Diocese against the claims of Episcopal Church officers from New York.
“We want people to understand, this is not a typical ”˜law suit’,” Fr. Spencer said. “We’re not trying to take property away from anyone. We’re simply trying to protect the property of our Diocese and local churches which we believe legally ”” and morally ”” belong to the people of those churches, and to our historic Diocese that has existed since 1877.“ A Declaratory Judgment, Spencer said, is a particular court petition that asks the court to spell out what the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the Diocese are under Illinois law. “Only then will we be able to move forward with releasing property to those churches who have decided to leave us. We want to do everything properly, and an explanatory ruling from the court will ensure that we stay within the bounds of the law.”
Spencer emphasized that the Diocese has offered to work charitably with those few churches that decided to leave the Diocese and stay under the control of the Episcopal Church. “We were willing to begin those talks. Unfortunately, the improper legal claims by leaders of the Episcopal Church in New York have tied our hands. We need direction from the court before we can proceed.”
Spencer said he had no idea how soon the court will make a decision on their petition. “The sooner the better,” he said. “The Episcopal Church has spent millions of dollars in the last few years suing churches who no longer want to be a part of it. Our goal is not to make their lawyers rich. Our goal is to protect our churches and diocesan resources. Many people have given sacrificially to our Diocese for over a hundred and fifty years because we have always upheld traditional Christian faith and discipline. We plan to do so for the next 150 years, God willing.”