A series of essays toward General Convention 2003 and beyond
Who owns a parish? If the current vestry could be said to have sole proprietary rights then that would mean that ownership in the strictest legal sense accrues to those who at that precise time exercise legal control over it. This would be akin to ownership of one's home (assuming, of course, the mortgage has been paid!) One, for example, purchases a home from another and now exercises control over it. But has a vestry, in fact, purchased the parish from the previous vestry? Indeed has the current vestry built the parish?
Because the Vestry has in reality inherited the parish from succeeding vestries and will pass on the parish to succeeding parishes and vestries without any sale being involved, a larger conception of ownership is involved here.
How is one to describe this situation of, shall we say, fluid ownership, or ownership "over time?" Our church's polity concerning the control of a parish is not based on ownership or the absolute right of property, but rather on the notion of stewardship. A church, a community, exists throughout time. In fact while in plagues or church records a parish may note when something was given, that particular gift was never conceived to grant either that person or the vestry proprietary rights. The gift was for the church at the time with the certainty it would serve others to come. On what grounds, therefore, can a present vestry take a parish hall build by love and labor at another time and assume it can change its character and its ownership and place the parish hall in a context utter foreign to and contrary to the wishes of those in the past who built it and probably to those in the future who would wish to inherit it as it is.
The community that inhabits a building at any particular moment is in fact tied by memory and donations to those who have gone before. And those who shall come after inherit from this present group other memories and other donational contributions. Each vestry does no more than exercise periodic stewardship. To guarantee the stewardship of parishes by its vestry the Diocese, the central unit of our church, seeks by canon to protect the ongoing life in time of that parish from the vagaries of periodic vestry upheavals and anger. Dioceses cannot prevent a vestry or a parish from being disgruntled about one thing or another at any one time or many times. It can however see to it that the continuity of the church is safeguarded from periodic irruptions. The diocese guards the memory and continuity of every parish and invites every vestry not to ownership and hence the rights of disposal but to stewardship.
It is ironic therefore that a particular diocese would attempt to discharge this responsibility and instead convey, by a change in its canons, to a parish the absolute rights to its property, i.e., to grant to particular parish at any particular time the right to redefine itself in a manner utterly foreign to those who have gone before and most likely would come after (not to mention the wider church in its own self conception of faith). Thus when a diocese seeks to do this by canon and grants absolute property rights to a parish it engages in a thoroughly secular act. For where in America is property perceived in terms of Stewardship, that most ancient biblical mandate, save in the church. Years ago Bill Stringfellow wryly remarked: "the evangelicals are the most secular of all people" You were right Bill.
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