Episcopal legal expenses estimated at $52 million as Anglicans receive payout

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Former Episcopalians in Texas received a $4.5 million check from the Episcopal Church (TEC) this week, mediated reimbursement for legal expenses incurred by Anglicans defending against the denomination’s unsuccessful lawsuit against a departing diocese.

It is a fraction of an estimated $51.7 million the national church has spent on property disputes across two decades, not counting additional funds spent by regional dioceses on attorneys’ fees and related expenses [see Editor’s Note below].

The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth was sued by the Episcopal Church in 2009. The diocese went on to become a founding member of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Litigation effectively concluded in February, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a TEC appeal following a unanimous Texas Supreme Court ruling in favor of the diocese.

“The Diocese made every attempt to avoid this litigation, beginning before its dissociation from TEC in 2008,” Bishop Ryan Reed wrote in a statement provided by the diocese on August 28. “Unfortunately, negotiations ended abruptly after three church properties were released to TEC-majority congregations when the Presiding Bishop and local TEC leaders brought suit in April 2009, foreclosing on the possibility of any other settlement.”

As I’ve written before, Episcopal litigation is not chiefly about money or church property, although those are both items under dispute. The denomination and Episcopal dioceses have expended enormous sums of money on legal fees, even taking a net financial loss in some instances despite court victories that awarded ownership of properties. Instead, litigation is chiefly aimed at preserving the exclusivity of the Episcopal Church’s Anglican Communion franchise. As former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told NPR in 2012, the only people who cannot buy Episcopal church buildings are the Anglicans.

“I’ve had two principles throughout this,” Jefferts Schori stated. “One, that the church receive a reasonable approximation of fair market value for assets that are disposed of; and, second, that we not be in the business of setting up competitors that want to either destroy or replace the Episcopal Church.”

Christians of other denominations (especially those within the United Methodist Church) should take note and pursue a negotiated path forward, like the proposed Protocol for Separation, rather than squander ministry assets in litigation as the Episcopal Church has done.

Episcopalians and departing Anglicans have been in legal conflict in several parts of the United States as churches and five separate dioceses disaffiliated with the denomination in the mid-2000s onward.

Those departing to ultimately join the ACNA have won lawsuits in Texas and Illinois, while losing lawsuits in New York, Virginia and California. Those in Pittsburgh were able to negotiate an agreement benefitting both remaining Episcopalians and Anglicans, while a South Carolina case is ongoing: a district court there handed down a court order favorable to Anglicans in June 2020, which now awaits state Supreme Court review.

In 2015, attorney A.S. Haley (then a layperson in the Episcopal Church) calculated from audited statements and monthly financials that TEC had spent a total of $35,317,343 on legal matters from 2000-through 2015. By adding in the church’s projected three-year budget for legal expenses, loans to dioceses, and outside expenses, he arrived at an estimated total of $42,675,000 through 2018.

I reached out to Mr. Haley, who kindly updated those numbers:

“ECUSA [TEC]’s final three-year totals are now online. They are much more opaque than they were in previous years — for example, they no longer show cumulative detailed expenses for any but the current year. Their audited statements bury the legal costs in the expenses of ‘Administration.’ As best as I can tell based on the budget changes approved by the Executive Council in late 2017, my $42.7 million estimate was on target for expenses through 2018.

“For the 2019-2021 Triennium, the last adopted budget revision shows that they project $4,138,979 of legal expenses through 2021, plus $333,366 in Title IV [Disciplinary] expenses, or about $4.5 million for the period 2019-2021. But that figure must now be doubled, because of the $4.5 million it was just announced that ECUSA would reimburse the (Anglican) Diocese of Fort Worth for its expenses in the lawsuit brought against it by ECUSA.

Haley totals those figures to arrive at the number of $51.7 million which TEC will have spent on litigation and related expenses from 2000 through 2021 — and that doesn’t begin to take into account the amounts spent by individual Episcopal dioceses, such as Los Angeles, TEC San Joaquin and TEC Pittsburgh.

Fort Worth is the second largest diocese by membership in the ACNA and counts 55 congregations in Texas and Louisiana. The diocese, which holds to an Anglo-Catholic form of churchmanship, disagreed with the direction of the Episcopal Church in matters of scriptural authority and human sexual expression.

Diocesan leaders are grateful that the major distraction of lawsuits and court battles is concluded.

“As we put more than a decade of litigation behind us, we can once again devote ourselves to sharing the transforming love of Jesus Christ and our mission to equip the saints for the work of ministry,” Reed noted. “We look forward now in hope and trust for Christ’s leading.”

[Editor’s Note: This article reports expenditures by the national church, officially known as the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Episcopal Church (DFMS). It does not include litigation expenses by Episcopal dioceses against departing parishes, which potentially number much higher. Others have estimated that number in excess of $200 million, but this article is limited to that which can be seen nationally through a review of audited financial statements).