Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Dennis Canon

The Legal Follies of ECUSA, Part III

Canon I.7.4 of the Episcopal Church (USA) is referred to commonly as "the Dennis Canon", after the name of its draftsman, the Rt. Rev. Walter D. Dennis, former Suffragan Bishop of New York, a lawyer and civil rights activist who proposed its adoption as a canon at General Convention 1979. Together with its companion section (Canon I.7.5), it reads as follows:

Sec. 4. All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.

Sec. 5. The several Dioceses may, at their election, further confirm the trust declared under the foregoing Section 4 by appropriate action, but no such action shall be necessary for the existence and validity of the trust.
The language purports to enact a trust affecting all real property owned by any parish or mission anywhere in the Church, without having to go through any other formalities of creating local trusts of real and personal property in each case. (Note that the language does not apply to money or property held by dioceses, but only to the real and personal property held by, or in trust for, parishes, missions and congregations.)

The Church's insistence that the Dennis Canon is alone sufficient to create a valid trust has produced a tremendous amount of litigation and suffering, unworthy of a body that claims to be a Christian Church. Since in virtually all cases the national Church has contributed nothing towards the cost of the property originally, or for its upkeep and maintenance throughout the years, the Church's position that it can swoop down and enforce the trust should any parish decide to leave amounts to a gratuitous confiscation that belies the real purpose of the Canon, which is to discourage parishes from leaving. It has not worked. The name of Bishop Dennis is associated with all that is wrong with the current Church, like it or not, and it is a sad legacy to have left behind.

The posts collected on this page go into the details of all the litigation over the Dennis Canon, and why it is such a problem for all parties concerned. As an introduction to the legal issues involved, there is first a series of posts on the law of church property. Then come the posts on the Dennis Canon itself, including some practical suggestions about resolving disputes over its interpretation without having to resort to court.

O Tempora! The Law of Church Property

Part IV

The Dennis Canon

(the Dog in the Manger Series)

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