Change Font Size:   A A A

Jul 06, 2011

Rio Grande Diocese, El Paso Congregation Reach Property Settlement

[Episcopal News Service] "No litigation can determine the nature and unity of the One Body of Christ," said Bishop Michael Vono after the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande and the congregation currently occupying St. Francis on the Hill Church in El Paso agreed to resolve their differences over the ownership of church property.


The agreement calls for the breakaway congregation currently occupying the church to conduct its final service on July 31, and to vacate the property at 6280 Los Robles, El Paso, that day. The Episcopal congregation, which has been meeting at Mount Sinai Temple, will move back into St. Francis the following week and celebrate Eucharist on Aug. 7, according to a press release from the diocese.


"This agreement acknowledges that the faith of congregants is more important than litigious differences," said Vono, who became Rio Grande's ninth bishop in October 2010.


The rector and a majority of members of St. Francis voted to break away from the Episcopal Church in October 2008 citing differences concerning the ordination of women and gays. The breakaway congregation, which is affiliated with the conservative Anglican Church in North America coalition, filed a lawsuit against the diocese and the Episcopal Church in an attempt to retain church property. Subsequent court rulings have found that the property must be held in trust for the mission of the diocese and the Episcopal Church.


The Rev. Felix C. Orji, rector of the breakaway congregation and a bishop-elect in the Anglican Church of Nigeria, requested a personal meeting with Vono after the bishop sent a pastoral letter to the congregation saying that "it is my prayer you will consider remaining with all your brothers and sisters in the wider community at St. Francis on the Hill."


"No one will be questioned, judged or unwelcome as the community comes together to begin a new chapter with the bishop," Vono said. "Your spiritual home has deep roots in family memories, life passages and happy occasions. St. Francis' has been your spiritual home. I pastorally assure you that, even with a contrary mind, I will lovingly care for and accept each one of you as members of Christ's body."


As Vono visited congregations throughout the diocese during his first year as bishop, he said: "I quickly discovered that the whole diocese shared in a growing sadness at the separation of beloved friends and long-time parishioners. The painful separation of Christian souls, who were once a single, loving community of believers, tortured both sides as we struggled with unwelcome and unchristian feelings."


"The despair and hopelessness Father Felix and I witnessed convinced us to work towards Christian reconciliation, and we reached a mutually amicable, non-punitive settlement. We wanted to find a way forward," Vono added.