An Omaha congregation that left the Episcopal Church over issues of doctrine and homosexuality now faces a tough decision about its midtown church: Should congregants stay or should they go?
A judge ruled last week that the people of St. Barnabas Church must surrender the 97-year-old church building, with all its artwork and other trappings, plus its rectory and other property to the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.
The ruling by Douglas County District Court Judge Joseph Troia came more than three years after the diocese sued St. Barnabas' priest and leaders for the church and rectory at 129 N. 40th St. It is one of many such property disputes around the nation between the Episcopal Church and disaffected congregations.
The judge's order gives the St. Barnabas congregation, which is moving toward joining the Roman Catholic Church, until late October to hand over the keys. But the diocese's lawyer, D.C. “Woody” Bradford, said it won't push to enforce that deadline.
People on both sides said they hope for negotiations that could lead to the congregation's staying in its current home, though not as an Episcopal church. St. Barnabas leaders also are considering an appeal.
“What we're hoping is that now that they have won the lawsuit they'll be more willing to sit down with us and talk about what's real,” said the Rev. Robert Scheiblhofer, rector of St. Barnabas.
Bradford said Nebraska Episcopal Bishop J. Scott Barker “wants to resolve it as amicably as possible, without any hindrance of their desire to become a Catholic Church. ... I'm sure we'll come together and work something out.”
St. Barnabas is one of dozens of Episcopal parishes around the nation whose members have chosen to leave the Episcopal Church. They have done so for a variety of reasons, most having to do with their parishioners' and clergy's beliefs that the U.S. church has drifted from traditional Anglican faith.
Long known for tolerating a wide variety of theological views, the Episcopal Church has struggled in recent years over issues that confront other denominations as well, including the ordination of women and of openly gay clergy.
After the Episcopal Church's 2003 ordination of its first openly gay bishop, the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, some parishes and even entire dioceses — Pittsburgh and San Joaquin, Calif. — have left the Episcopal Church. Many put themselves under the authority of conservative Anglican bishops in Africa.
In Omaha, St. Barnabas members voted in 2007 to leave the Episcopal Church. They joined the Anglican Church in America, an affiliation of conservative Anglican churches. Since then, Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI set up a path by which such parishes could join the Catholic Church, and St. Barnabas has put itself on that path.
Officials of the Nebraska Episcopal Diocese have said that St. Barnabas members were free to leave the denomination, with church leaders' blessings, but that they could not continue to use their buildings.
Diocesan officials argued that the parish existed only as a part of the diocese and of the Episcopal Church, and thus held its property in trust for the larger church.
St. Barnabas contended that no such trust existed because the parish did not agree to one. The congregation also argued that parishioners always have owned and maintained the property they currently occupy.
John Chatelain, attorney for St. Barnabas' leaders, said he believes they have grounds for an appeal.
They also are considering other options, including moving out and finding a different church building. Scheiblhofer said the current church building is old and requires major maintenance; a house that St. Barnabas owns nearby needs extensive repairs; and there's no parking lot.
The problems with the buildings actually are a hindrance to St. Barnabas becoming Roman Catholic, Scheiblhofer said, because of the big repair bills and the legal cloud over the title.
As for parishioners, he said, “there are those who do want to stay, and there are others who see wisdom in moving somewhere, because it's an old building.”
Contact the writer: