“When a fellow says, it hain’t the money but the principle o’ the thing, it’s th’ money.”
Kin Hubbard (F. [Frank] Mckinney Hubbard) (1868–1930), U.S. humorist, journalist. “Hoss Sense and Nonsense” (1926).
On March 26, the vestry, or board of directors, of Grace Episcopal Church announced it was ending the parish’s 136-year affiliation with the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States and joining a breakaway Anglican group led by a controversial Nigerian bishop.
The parish’s senior warden (i.e., chairman of the board) said that the breakup was strictly based on doctrinal differences because “the Episcopal Church no longer believes the historic, orthodox Christian faith common to all believers” — and on nothing else.
But the key to the battle, according to many observers, is not ideology, it’s real estate — expensive real estate.
Grace Episcopal Church occupies half a city block, about 112,000 square feet, on Tejon Street between Willamette Avenue and Monument Street. It includes the original church building, now the Guild Hall, a school and a Victorian mansion, which houses administrative offices.
The present church, built in 1926, was designed by Frohman, Robb and Little, the architects of Washington’s National Cathedral. The central tower is a copy of the tower of Oxford’s Magdalen College in England.
According to the El Paso County Assessors Office, the half-block, including improvements, is only worth $772,964. The assessment, however, is irrelevant because the property is used for religious worship, and is fully exempt from property taxes.
So what is it worth? Local newspapers have quoted, without attribution, a figure of $18 million.
Local builder/developer Chuck Murphy, whose company has restored or renovated many of the city’s historic buildings, was asked whether he could assign a value to it.
“Well, the land alone is certainly worth $35 a foot, but when you consider the building, I don’t know how you’d value that,” he said. “I don’t see how you could duplicate it — the stonework, the stained glass. What would it cost? $300 a square foot? $1,000? You just can’t build something like that.”
Rob O’Neill, bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Colorado, has dismissed the 11 members of the church’s 12-member vestry who voted to secede.
The diocese had previously dismissed the church’s rector, Don Armstrong, pending an investigation of allegations of financial improprieties.
Lindsay Fischer, a longtime attorney in the Springs, said that whoever gets the real estate wins — regardless of belief.
“That’s where people are used to going,” he said, “and that’s where they’ll keep on going, once all this dies down.”
But dissident vestryman Jack Gloriod disagrees. “This is an issue of theology — this is not about the property,” he said.
Martin Nussbaum, who represents the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado, does see the conflict as a battle over property — a battle in which he believes his client will prevail.
He said the precedents pertaining to churches are clear. In Colorado, the legal precedent is Diocese of Colorado v. Mote.
In 1976, a Denver parish seceded from the diocese because its members opposed the ordination of women.
The parishioners claimed the real estate belonged to them. The diocese sued. The parish prevailed in the lower courts, but was overturned on appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court.
On the face of it, the Mote case seems analogous to Grace’s situation. But, according to Fischer, it may not be that simple.
“The Episcopal Church is not like the Catholic Church,” he said. “The individual parishes are legal entities, and they own their own real estate. You’d have to look at the title, but it’s not in the diocese’s name.”
The title to the property, according to county records, is held by Grace Church and St. Stephens.
However, according to another equally prominent Springs attorney who would speak to the Business Journal only on condition of anonymity, the breakaway group doesn’t have a prayer.
“There’s no way that the rump congregation is going to end up with the real estate,” he said. “If they did so it would undermine the most basic tenets of real estate law. They can’t just secede because they want to, and take the assets. That’s the same principle that the South learned in the Civil War.”
“I think the local boys will win,” he said. “The law may be against them (in the Mote precedent), but the facts are a lot more important than the law — persuade a judge in his belly before you go for the head.”
Kathleen Reeder, the executive editor of the Columbia Journal of Law, and the author of a recent article about property disputes within the Episcopal Church, is inclined to agree with Nussbaum.
“In Episcopal Church property disputes, courts almost always rule in favor of the diocese and against the local church,” she said.
That’s because the courts have seen parishes as, in effect, company-owned franchises of the Episcopal Church.
They may have received little or no financial support from the diocese, they may have enjoyed virtual self-government, but they’re not truly independent.
To become a parish of the Episcopal Church means submitting to Canon Law, which governs the church and its parishes. In the church’s view, individual parishes cannot unilaterally withdraw from this contract.
But there are, Reeder said, one or two cases in which the courts have supported the rights of parishes to leave the diocese, just as auto dealers have a right to switch franchises.
Parishes bind themselves to a denomination, but that can change.
One court found that if a Ford dealer goes over to GM, the action would “furnish no claim by (Ford) to possession of the dealer’s showroom … as in matrimony, always and forever do not preclude a change in heart.”
Terry Hill, a spokesman for the Washington-based International Franchise Association, doesn’t think that the diocese/parish relationship much resembles that between franchisor/franchisee.
“Legally, when you buy a franchise, you buy a license to operate it for a stated time, usually eight to 10 years,” he said. “The agreements are very specific, everything’s spelled out. They’re very structured and restrictive.”
And if disputes arise, Hill said, the franchise contract usually specifies how they will be resolved.
“We like to deprive lawyers of as much money as possible, so we require mediation or arbitration,” he said. “You really don’t want to go to court, that just costs everybody a lot more money.”
So, is Grace Episcopal Church an independent entity with absolute control over its property or is it a subsidiary of the Protestant Episcopal Church and subject to the Diocese of Colorado?
Church members appear to be on different sides of the aisle.
The secessionist members of the vestry reinstated Armstrong, who led three services on Palm Sunday which attracted about 600 parishioners.
About 400 members attended an afternoon service at Colorado College’s Shove Chapel, where Bob McJimsey, the sole dissenting vestryman, was introduced to prolonged applause as “our vestry of one.”
After the afternoon service, the parishioners gathered outside the chapel in the warm sunshine.
Many, including Bobbie Webb, the 90-year-old doyenne of the Webb family, whose roots in Colorado date to the mid-19th century, expressed their hope that the dispute would be resolved and that they could return to Grace.
“This is just awful,” she said “I hope that it will end soon.”