[Episcopal News Service] The Judicial Circuit Court in Adams County, Illinois, has ruled against the Episcopal Diocese of Quincy and the Episcopal Church in their efforts to recover assets and property claimed by a breakaway group.
Judge Thomas J. Ortbal’s ruling, dated Sept. 6 and made public Sept. 10, is the most recent action in legal proceedings that began in March 2009.
Unlike the majority of other cases in which the Episcopal Church has sought to reclaim assets from departing members, Ortbal’s ruling states that the actions of General Convention and the presiding bishop “cannot be legally enforced” in diocesan matters.
“It is clear, on the basis of the church and diocesan constitution and canons, that [the Episcopal Church] is organized with ascending tiers and it is hierarchical in many of its structural aspects,” the ruling states. “What, however, is much less evident is whether the General Convention constitutes the highest ecclesiastical tribunal with ultimate authority over a diocese.”
The court also concluded Sept. 6 that it was “constitutionally impermissible” for it to inquire into “matters of discipline and doctrine between the parties” because the First Amendment prevents the legal system from deciding cases that involve doctrinal matters.
In November 2008, about 60 percent of the members of several congregations in the Diocese of Quincy left the diocese and the Episcopal Church to join the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone.
Then-Quincy Bishop Keith Ackerman announced Oct. 29, 2008 that he would retire on Nov. 1 of that year. The diocesan synod gathered six days later and a majority voted to leave the Episcopal Church.
The Rt. Rev. John Buchanan, retired bishop of West Missouri, was elected provisional bishop of Quincy at a special reorganizing synod in April 2009.
The Episcopal Diocese of Quincy reunited with the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago on Sept. 1, 2013, after a majority of diocesan bishops and standing committees consented to the reunion. Buchanan will become assisting bishop in the Diocese of Chicago.
Chicago Bishop Jeffrey D. Lee, after hearing about the court’s ruling, said that the church had hoped to recover an endowment fund that has been frozen, the former diocesan office building adjacent to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Peoria “and the principle that churches such as ours have the right to determine how we organize and govern ourselves.”
“We are now considering all of our options for moving forward, and you will hear more from us soon about this matter,” Lee added. “Thank you for your faithful leadership in the new Episcopal Diocese of Chicago and in The Episcopal Church and for your prayers.”
Lee said that “during this long process, the people of the Peoria deanery have exemplified Christian generosity, hospitality and forbearance. Despite the ongoing costs — financial, spiritual and emotional — of litigation, Episcopalians in west central Illinois have spent the past four years experiencing new life in Christ, gathering week by week to worship, work and pray together. I have recently met with clergy and lay leaders from the deanery and am impressed and humbled by their faithfulness and more eager than ever to work with them. They are an example to us all.”
Tobyn Leigh, a continuing Episcopalian from the former Episcopal Diocese of Quincy and a General Convention deputy in 2009 and 2012, said: “The people of the former Diocese of Quincy, (now Chicago) are resilient. Although we are deeply disappointed in Judge Ortbal’s ruling, we move forward, keeping our eyes on the Lord and the work He has set for us to do. For we are convinced that nothing, certainly not a court ruling, will be able to separate us from the love of God, that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”