Recently I was talking with a friend who is a part of a “breakaway” Anglican congregation whose members are in a property dispute with their former Episcopal diocese. He complained bitterly about the large amounts of money both sides are spending in the ongoing litigation, to say nothing of the loss of property that the losers will experience. “What a travesty!” he said. “With all of the real problems in the world, here we are, both sides, spending so much on legal proceedings!” Then he made a fascinating suggestion. Wouldn’t it be better, he said, to work out some sort of mutually acceptable compromise that includes an estimate of what both groups would otherwise be paying for legal fees and property losses, and together contribute that to a fund devoted to ministering to AIDS orphans in Africa?
That strikes me as a promising model for other denominations as well. The mainline Presbyterian (PCUSA) denomination to which I belong is experiencing many property disputes right now, as some congregations are leaving for what they see as greener ecclesiastical pastures. When you look at the issue historically, it is a bit ironic that the leaders of major Protestant denominations are so adamant in their right to hold onto church properties, against the claims of the dissenters. At the time of the Reformation the Protestants grabbed hold of Catholic properties with abandon—monasteries and convents as well as places of worship—and they also simply destroyed much of the contents of those buildings: statues, altars, and the like. And all of this was done without any respect for the claims of those who had strong moral and legal claims to ownership of those properties. To the “breakaway” groups belonged the spoils.
But back to my Anglican’s friend’s proposal. Suppose both sides in these disputes were to set up a fund for a project, agreeable to both sides, and determine together a reasonable fee for the majority group in any congregation that wants to leave the denomination, to pay in exchange for keeping the property and settling with the voting minority and the local adjudicatories. Since our arguments these days focus primarily on sexuality, maybe the fund could be devoted to helping release children and others who are victims of sexual trafficking.
Such an arrangement would have important spiritual benefits. It would help both sides to see themselves as using our disagreements to accomplish something together for the Lord’s work. And it could help to reduce our anger toward each other, presenting all parties with an opportunity to be gracious toward our opponents.