What if I told you that a church purchased a piece of property more than 40 years ago, obtained a deed free and clear, demolished old buildings and built new ones with its own money, and then that property was confiscated from the same church when it had the courage to stand up for its principles?
You would likely tell me that this could not happen in America. You might say that if it did, it could not happen here in Tennessee. You would most certainly tell me that fellow Christians would not act this way. But that is exactly what is going to happen to St. Andrew’s Church in Nashville if the Tennessee Supreme Court does not accept a pending request for review of a lower appellate court’s decision.
I have had the pleasure of serving as the Rector of St. Andrew’s for the past 13 years. During that time, our small group of parishioners has focused on keeping with St. Andrew’s Anglo-Catholic principles and walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. It has not been easy. The last thing a church wants to do is talk with lawyers, show up in court, and ponder its future in the hands of judges.
In the 1960s, St. Andrew’s purchased the property where our church stands from the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee with its own money. St. Andrew’s also chose to have a relationship with the Diocese. Because it is an Anglo-Catholic church though, the relationship was never intended to be the same as other Episcopal churches. The Diocese and its Bishop at the time, John Vander Horst, not only knew this, they encouraged St. Andrew’s and its Rector, Edwin Conly, to grow their unique church.
In exchange for the purchase price, Bishop Vander Horst gave us a Warranty Deed. The deed conveyed the property to St. Andrew’s free and clear with no trust in favor of the Diocese. The Diocese also asked St. Andrew’s to formalize the parties’ special relationship, and it did so through modified language in its corporate charter. Neither St. Andrew’s nor the Diocese intended for property bought by St. Andrew’s free and clear to ever be returned to the Diocese under any circumstances.
But the story does not end there. When St. Andrew’s arrived at the property, it found a dilapidated mansion and other buildings, which were in dire need of repair. St. Andrew’s parishioners built a new church building, later razed the mansion, and a new parish hall was built. These buildings were erected with money from St. Andrew’s parishioners for the benefit of their church, not the Diocese. Over the years, St. Andrew’s alone has paid to maintain its buildings and continue operations of its church.
By 2006, the Episcopal Church in the United States became a very uncomfortable place for an Anglo-Catholic church like St. Andrew’s to call home, and our members unanimously decided to end their special relationship with the Diocese of Tennessee and begin a new relationship with the Diocese of Quincy in Illinois. Three years later, the Diocese of Tennessee chose to sue St. Andrew’s, demanding what it called a return of St. Andrew’s property.
The Diocese’s efforts have been resisted by our little church and its lawyers for several years now. In other states, such as South Carolina, the courts have seen fit to stand up for local churches in their struggles with the larger Dioceses. In Tennessee, it remains to be seen how all of this will shake out. After a trial court and court of appeals ruled in favor of the Diocese, St. Andrew’s has recently requested that the Tennessee Supreme Court consider a further appeal. That court does not have to take the case but most other states’ supreme courts have done so. Only two justices are needed for the Tennessee Supreme Court to consider an appeal.
While St. Andrew’s will continue to remind the courts of the actions of Bishop Vander Horst, Father Conly and others back in the 1960s, it ultimately just wants to have its day in court. At this stage, no one has been allowed to testify about any of these events. No matter what ultimately happens though, St. Andrew’s will continue to worship as a church, with or without the property it bought. Its parishioners are committed to reflecting the actions of Christ in their daily lives.
After all, that to me is what being a Christian is all about.
The Rev. James M. Guill, SSC, has been Rector at St. Andrew’s Church in Nashville since 1999. He is also a lawyer. A native of Memphis, Guill attended Vanderbilt University for undergraduate studies and Emory University for law school. He and his wife, Patti, have been married 32 years and have three children.
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