Settlement ends Dispute over Church

David Virtue DVirtue236 at AOL.COM
Thu May 31 01:47:12 EDT 2001


SETTLEMENT ENDS DISPUTE OVER CHURCH

By EDDIE CURRAN
Staff Reporter
Mobile Register

The fight over Alabama's oldest Protestant church ended at about 3 a.m.
Tuesday, with a settlement that reads like a victory for the old-line
Episcopalians ousted from the 182-year old Christ Church last October.

About 10 lawyers appeared before Mobile County Circuit Judge Rick Stout
Tuesday morning to announce that the case was effectively over. Under
the agreement, about 400 socially conservative parishioners who split
from the mainline Episcopal diocese but wanted to keep the historic
downtown church and its possessions must now be out by the end of
October.

Those possessions, now back in the hands of the Episcopalians, include
a golden chalice adorned with some 200 diamonds, emeralds, rubies and
pearls - so valuable that it's only removed from a bank vault for a few
special services a year.

A turning point in the case might well have been a brief, filed Friday
by attorneys for the mainline Episcopal congregation, that laid out the
history of the church's ownership and chronicled the plans of Christ
Church pastor Tim Smith to leave the Episcopal denomination yet keep
the building. Records sought by the plaintiffs and produced by the
defendants showed that as early as 1994 - two years after he came to
Christ Episcopal - Smith began a file he called, "Churches Leaving TEC
(the Episcopal Church.)"

"We buried that discussion today," said Mobile lawyer Lloyd Roebuck, in
declining to comment about that evidence. Roebuck and his partner,
Vince Kilborn, represented Smith and those who share his beliefs.

Tuesday morning before Stout, those associated with the group were
somber, if gracious in what could only be described as defeat.

The once-ousted Episcopalians, meanwhile, appeared thrilled.

"I'm pleased that the issue is settled and that the continuing
Episcopal congregation will have it's rightful place in that Episcopal
building," said Broox Holmes, a Mobile attorney who represented the
Gulf Coast Episcopal Diocese, of which Christ Episcopal had long been a
member.

Plaintiffs in the case were the diocese, and separately, the wardens
and vestry of the Episcopal group that lost the October vote of the
congregation and has since been worshipping in a series of Episcopal
churches and chapels.

The lawsuit was filed shortly after the vote, though the divisions in
the church were by then years old. Under Smith, services became much
longer, more emotional, and less recognizably Episcopalian. Those
services - and the socially conservative ministry that preached against
the evils of homosexuality - attracted hundreds of new members, many of
whom came from denominations other than the Episcopal Church.

In October, they cited what they contended to be the Episcopal Church's
acceptance and tolerance of extra-marital sex and homosexuality in
choosing to leave the United States' arm of the Church of England, or
Anglican Church.

The settlement was a lopsided win for the Episcopalians for the simple
reason that "our case was very strong," said Holmes.

The settlement includes these points, with Smith's followers identified
as the Christ Anglican Church:

That Christ Anglican Church execute a deed on June 11, clearing up
ownership of the church by recording a deed that's to convey all
interest by that body to Christ Episcopal Church.

That Christ Anglican Church will vacate the church facilities by Oct.
28, 2001, and make every effort to move by Sept. 30.

That all property of the church, including trust funds, be conveyed to
the possession of Christ Episcopal.

Though they'll be without a place of worship in four months, the
current tenants of Christ Church have much going for them. By all
accounts, it's a large, unified congregation with considerable
financial resources, a strong emphasis on charitable works and
Christian education, and a will to remain together.

Smith said Tuesday that it's too soon to know what the congregation
will do, and where it will go. But it will survive, he said.

"It would be our hope that wherever we are, it enables us to continue
the powerful ministries which God is accomplishing through this faith
community, and to do so without hindering or hampering our ministries,"
he said. "And we believe this settlement will enable that to take
place."

When Stout awoke Tuesday morning, he fully expected to preside that day
over perhaps his most difficult or at least most controversial case
since he arrived on the bench in January.

The day before, on Memorial Day, settlement talks that had begun the
week before resumed, and didn't come to an end until shortly after 3
a.m., Roebuck said. Stout joked that he usually gets upset with lawyers
for not calling him ahead of time to inform him that a settlement's
been reached.

"You're excused for not calling me at 4 o'clock in the morning," a
grinning Stout told the lawyers on both teams.

Roebuck called the settlement a "a victory for all parties concerned."

"Both parties realized their ultimate mission is not over bricks and
mortar," he said.

On Friday, Mobile attorney Palmer Hamilton, who represented the
Episcopal congregation, filed a lengthy brief that made a convincing
case that the plan to leave the Episcopal Church and keep the property
and possessions of Christ Church was hatched years ago.

Attached to the brief were 16 exhibits, including letters and e-mails
and Smith's file, dating from 1994 to shortly before the October vote.

"The evidence will show that, within two years of arriving at Christ
Episcopal Church, Smith began researching how he and his allies in the
congregation could leave the Episcopal Church and take the property of
the church with them," Hamilton stated, in his summation of that
evidence.

Much of that research, the records show, focused on the legal issues
surrounding the church's title history - the records maintained in
Mobile County Probate Court that describe who owns the property, and
the conditions of such ownership.

For much of that time, the letters and memos, Smith conferred with a
small group of church leaders, but otherwise kept his plans a secret
from the vestry and congregation, exhibits show.

In a 1997 memorandum to church leader and Mobile attorney Jim Crosby -
one of the leaders of the movement to leave the Episcopal church -
Smith wrote that he would "not be evasive" with the Vestry, but didn't
intend to tell them about an Alabama lawsuit that involved ownership
issues similar issues to the Christ Church situation.

"Jim, next to the proclamation of the Gospel, this matter is my NUMBER
TWO issue as rector of Christ Church. To prepare ourselves for the
seemingly inevitable," Smith wrote in the same memo, referring to his
plans to leave the Episcopal Church while keeping the building and
possessions of Christ Church.

In the brief, Hamilton cited this memo in stating, "One can hardly
imagine a more candid admission of his true intentions more than three
years before the schism. Yet his (Smith's) sworn testimony is that, as
of the day of the vote, Oct. 1, 2000, he did now know whether he was
leaving the Episcopal Church."

On Tuesday, Smith reiterated his sworn statements made in deposition
testimony prior to settlement about when he and others first began
planning what the Episcopalians called the "schism."

"The leaving of the Episcopal Church was never seriously considered
until during this discernment process last late summer and early fall,"
Smith said Tuesday.

Certainly, by August 2000, the plan was in full effect. In an August
2000 e-mail, Smith wrote of things that needed to be done "Between Now
and September 27." Among them:

"Finalize all legal steps to protect - as best as possible - our claim
to the real property and personality of Christ Church."

"Establish a Legal Team and involve them in the process."

"Use up, to the maximum degree legally and morally possible, all
existing trust fund monies which were given to Christ Episcopal Church
in order to reduce the Restoration Project indebtedness."

"Be prepared for an aggressive action by the Diocese. Have alternative
plans ready."

"Have all exterior locks changed immediately upon filing of any legal
action."

"Focus on God ... and continue His Ministry!!! JESUS IS LORD OF THE
CHURCH!!!!!"

At Tuesday's settlement hearing, both sides praised Stout, and Baldwin
County attorney Sam Crosby, who acted as mediator, free of charge, and
helped facilitate the settlement, they said.

Smiling throughout was the Right Rev. Charles Duvall, the recently
retired bishop whose final months as leader of the Gulf Coast Diocese
were spent trying to keep Christ Church in the diocese. Duvall was
among those whose deposition was taken.

(Religion reporter Kristen Campbell and staff reporter Jean Lakeman
Helms contributed to this report.)

(c) Mobile Register. Used with permission.




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