The problem, in a nutshell, is this: beginning in late 2004, the Episcopal Church began to intervene and participate in lawsuits brought by dioceses against departing churches. The object of each of these lawsuits has been to enforce through the courts a trust which the Church maintains exists on the property of every single one of its 7,000+ parishes. Under the terms of the trust, first expressed in an amendment (known as the “Dennis Canon”) to the Church canons (bylaws) in 1979, every Episcopal parish and mission holds its real and personal property””everything from the land, buildings and endowments down to the hymnbooks and altar furnishings””in trust for the diocese of which it is a member, and for the Episcopal Church as a whole.
The parish itself is allowed to be the trustee of the trust, and to use the property for its purposes, for as long as it remains in the Episcopal Church. Should it ever vote to leave its diocese, however, the Church and the diocese then become the co-beneficiaries of the trust, which would give them the right to enforce it, and assert that the property must go to them. These are the terms of the so-called “Dennis Canon”, enacted by General Convention in 1979, which lay dormant for more than twenty years before it first came into play against a parish that tried to leave.
With billions of dollars’ worth of tax-exempt religious property in the name of its parishes, the Episcopal Church committed itself to enforcing the Dennis Canon in the courts when parishes tried to retain their property after voting to leave. Most trusts are created by the person who has title to the property that is placed in trust. The Dennis Canon, however, is different. It is a trust created by the national Church, without needing the signatures of each parish vestry or rector to be effective””or so the Church claims. The lawsuits brought by the Church have each been filed with the purpose of obtaining rulings from the various State courts which uphold and enforce individual Dennis Canon trusts on parish property.