Posted by: dacalu | 11 August 2010

Common Property

I feel obliged, after my last post, to say something about common property, specifically the issue of church property which was, and continues to be, vexing for the Episcopal Church. If Christians are to have a low view of our property rights, does that mean we should be willing to release church property to congregations that wish to leave the Church? Yes and no.

At the surface level, many have argued that we should not fight for property rights. Some congregations wish to leave their diocese or The Episcopal Church (TEC, which is the national church for the US, but also includes dioceses in Europe, Oceania, Navajoland, and Latin America). Several communities have tried to leave and take their property with them – sanctuaries, parish halls, grounds, etc. Jesus said: “if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Mt. 5:40). And, in line with my previous post, I’m inclined to say yes, if someone steals your property you should let them have it. [There are some caveats when they are stealing food you need to feed your family, etc., but by and large I think this applies].

Reasoning along these lines, I originally agreed with those who said we should let people leave TEC with their property. But then I started thinking about how that was phrased, and realized that there was an important theological point at stake, something else having to do with property. The congregations that are leaving wish to take THEIR property with them, and that simply won’t do. Biblical tradition on property has to do with giving up our individual goods to the community. Consider this passage from the Acts of the Apostles (5:1-11).

“But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.”

It’s a bit grim, and by no means follows the (false) perception that Christianity is more lax than Hebrew antecedents. Ananias and Sapphira attempt to join, but refuse to bring everything they have. They hide away some property, so that if things don’t turn out with the Christians, they have something to fall back on. God takes a very dim view of this. Now I needn’t get into questions of whether this is a good picture of God. I need only point out that the early Christians took communal property seriously. It means something to give property to the church. You don’t invest, you join, and that in a very serious way.

TEC has an obligation to hold property on behalf of the entire community and for the sake of the coming Kingdom. No individual or parish or diocese has a right to the property. It is our trust – as a whole body – and we are obliged to take care of it as common property.

If a group of people chooses to leave the Church, I am sympathetic. A church should never force people to stay, and as an Episcopalian, I feel strongly that people must be allowed to follow their conscience.

If a group of people (no longer Episcopalians) choose to steal our property, we should, with grace and humility, make of that theft a gift. Our Lord gives us little other option.

If, however, a congregation claims a right to their property, scripture, tradition, and reason compel us to say, “no.” The property belongs to the church as a whole or we become nothing more than an investment strategy. “I will give this property to the whole body, as long as I agree with the body and no longer.” There is no sacrifice, no gift, only enlightened self-interest.

Let congregations that leave declare themselves to be no longer part of the body. Then they may ask the diocese or the national church to give them a gift of the property. And we, as a whole community of faith must steward the resources responsibly. It may be that we want to give them that gift. We cannot, though – we must not – affirm that the property was theirs to begin with. It sends a terrible message to the world.

Christians embrace community. We give witness to the discipline and joy of joining the Body of Christ. Beset by schism, we still hold fast to an ideal of one holy, catholic, and apostolic church. We must remember that our use of money and property reflect that aspiration, even when it cannot completely reflect that reality. For where our treasure is, there will our heart be also.

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