A Spokane congregation that left the Episcopal Church was stripped of its century-old sanctuary Wednesday.
The ruling was anticipated, given the 97-year tradition of Washington courts favoring church hierarchy in property disputes.
“It’s no surprise,” said Lee Bullivant, lay leader of Holy Trinity Church’s congregation in exile.
But Bullivant, who leaves behind the ashes of her mother, father and younger brother - all buried in the churchyard - left the courtroom smiling.
“We’re happy,” she said, “ecstatic about where we are and where we are going. We’re forward-looking - we look forward to what God has in store for us.”
The Rev. Robert Creech, who led the 5-week-old rebellion to Antiochan Orthodoxy, agreed.
“We have what counts. We have the faith and each other,” he said. “Buildings are important, but secondary.”
The Episcopal Diocese of Spokane is expected to ask the court for a final judgment resolving remaining legal issues, including control of Holy Trinity trust accounts and an endowment worth about $350,000.
The case stems from an April 30 vote by members of Holy Trinity, in which 90 percent of the followers opted to convert to a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Creech and his 240-member flock planned to continue worshiping at their West Dean church.
The diocese countered by suing the converts, seeking control of the money and buildings.
On May 10, Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor granted a temporary restraining order evicting the non-Episcopalians. A small remnant of the old congregation remained.
In her ruling Wednesday, O’Connor sided with the diocese.
The judge found that the new Orthodox majority is still bound by the old Holy Trinity by-laws, constitution and articles of incorporation.
Those documents, O’Connor said, clearly state that ultimate control of the parish lies in the hands of Episcopal Bishop Jeffrey Terry, because he has the power to decide who may worship there.
After the bulk of the congregation left the church, Terry renounced their membership.
A new vestry - or board of directors - was appointed, and that vestry now controls the church buildings, O’Connor said.
More than two-dozen of the converts were in the courtroom gallery to hear the decision, and O’Connor addressed them sympathetically.
“This is a very emotional case for many of you,” she said.
“Issues involving church are issues courts are not comfortable with.”
Since the split, Creech has been conducting weekend services in a Ridpath Hotel conference room. He said the congregation will meet next week to start charting its course.
Attorney Virginia Worthington, a member of the Orthodox group, said she hopes a compromise can be worked out with the diocese - one that may assist the new congregation in finding a home.
So far, the diocese has not considered such a move, according to its lawyer, Peter Witherspoon.
Witherspoon said the mother church has other pressing responsibilitiies, such as supporting the remaining congregation at Holy Trinity, estimated at just 20 to 25 people.
“We’ve got a split congregation - but the people who remain need a church,” Witherspoon said.
During the two-day hearing this week, the Orthodox converts argued that they own the church buildings because they, not the diocese, paid for them over the years.
Bullivant said Creech breathed life into a stagnant church when he arrived 16 years ago. Since then, the congregation has more than doubled.
But Witherspoon said Creech’s opposition to perceived liberalism in the Episcopal Church also drove some churchgoers away.
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