Judge orders Episcopal parish to yield property to diocese

Posted: March 13, 2003

A Philadelphia parish that broke away from the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania in a doctrinal feud must return to the diocese or surrender its property, a city judge has ruled.

Although the decision applies only to Philadelphia County, it could have implications statewide for congregations and denominations in schism over doctrinal issues such as homosexuality and biblical interpretation.

Orphans Court Judge Joseph D. O'Keefe issued the opinion Monday in the case of St. James the Less Church, a conservative parish in East Falls that seceded from the liberal diocese in 1999.

In his ruling, O'Keefe accused the St. James vestry, or governing body, of "plotting" to "usurp parish property," and ordered St. James to return all holdings to the diocese. He also said its vestry has no standing and authorized the diocese to appoint a new one.

"There's shock, of course. We all hoped it wouldn't come to this," the Rev. David Ousley, rector of St. James, said yesterday.

He said his church planned to appeal the decision and would ask the courts to stay the decision pending appeal.

St. James, a parish of about 100, had been in disagreement with liberalizing trends in the Episcopal Church USA for more than two decades, and had for several years refused to recognize the authority of the diocesan bishops.

About a half-dozen other local parishes also have barred Pennsylvania Bishop Charles E. Bennison from their pulpits, although they have not seceded from the denomination.

O'Keefe declared that St. James' vestry had acted improperly when it incorporated the CJSL Foundation in 1999 and merged the parish, which had been a member of the diocese since 1846, with the foundation.

But because the foundation recognized no relationship with the diocese or the Episcopal Church USA, O'Keefe called the merger a "scheme" to circumvent civil and church laws.

St. James' 1846 articles of incorporation, and revisions it made in 1919 and 1967, all recognize that the diocese retained "ultimate control" of its property, O'Keefe noted.

In reaching his decision, O'Keefe ignored much of the diocese's and CJSL Foundation's arguments. He drew instead on a 1935 Pennsylvania statute that deals specifically with the control and disposition of property in hierarchical denominations.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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