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Episcopal Diocese, 9 breakaway parishes reach property agreement

Stephen Huba
| Thursday, March 1, 2018, 3:21 p.m.
Christ's Church Greensburg, one of nine Anglican parishes that settled a property dispute Thursday with the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Christ's Church Greensburg, one of nine Anglican parishes that settled a property dispute Thursday with the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and nine breakaway Anglican churches have reached a “distinctively Christian” agreement on the use of their properties, resolving a dispute going back to 2008, the diocese said on Thursday.

The agreement involves two parishes in Westmoreland County ­— Christ's Church Greensburg and St. Alban's Anglican Church in Murrysville — three in Allegheny County, one in Butler County, two in Washington County and one in Fayette County.

All nine are part of the Ambridge-based Anglican Church in North America , a body that formed out of the theological disputes that roiled the Episcopal Church (USA) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Disagreements over women's ordination, homosexuality and Biblical authority led some traditional parishes to seek autonomy from the more liberal Episcopal Church.

The decision by some Western Pennsylvania parishes to break away led to litigation over issues of ownership and property rights. The status of older parishes that predated the formation of the Pittsburgh diocese was less clear.

Thursday's agreement, the result of nine years of negotiations, allows the nine parishes to retain “legal title to the historic real and personal property,” while giving the Pittsburgh diocese “trust beneficiary rights” in the historic real and personal property of each of the parishes.

“The parishes will continue to use the church buildings and other real property that is part of the historic property for their Christian worship and ministry,” the agreement states. “The Episcopal Diocese may make use of the parish historic church buildings to meet pastoral needs consistent with the shared history, Christian heritage, values and beliefs of the parties.”

The agreement also requires the nine parishes to pay an annual fee to the Pittsburgh diocese. For the first 20 years, the fee will be 3.25 percent of the operating revenue of the parish for the previous calendar year. For each year thereafter, the fee will be 1.75 percent of operating revenues, the agreement said.

Pittsburgh Bishop Dorsey McConnell called the agreement an “amicable resolution of a painful and contentious matter. … While acknowledging our deep differences, both sides have been concerned with seeking the highest degree of relationship possible, in the hope of reducing the scandal to the Gospel posed by the split.”

Bishop James Hobby of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh said, “I feel that the settlement is quite remarkable, given the litigious culture in which we live.”

The Rev. Jeff Wylie, rector of Christ's Church, welcomed the agreement but said it will have little impact on the daily operations of the downtown Greensburg church.

“We were really blessed because it's something that I think is fair for both sides involved,” he said. “This is a good example of Christian love – we know there are differences here and we have to respect those.”

Wylie, who has been at the church for four years, said the agreement may facilitate great cooperation among churches. “If there's hungry people that need to be fed, we can work together to feed those hungry people,” he said.

Christ's Church is celebrating its 195th anniversary this year.

The parties to the dispute said that in reaching the agreement, they were trying to be faithful to Christian principles regarding conflicts.

“The parishes and the Episcopal Diocese entered into this agreement with the desire and intent to enable all involved to move past litigation and instead to focus on their respective missions,” states an executive summary.

The parties especially credited two mediators – David L. McClenahan of the law firm K&L Gates LLP and Mark Nordenberg, chancellor emeritus of the University of Pittsburgh and former dean of its law school.

The agreement is still subject to approval by Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and the courts.

Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-850-1280, shuba@tribweb.com or via Twitter @shuba_trib.

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