Groton — The members of the Bishop Seabury Anglican Church might have to choose between their church building and their pastor, the Rev. Ronald S. Gauss said Tuesday, in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal Monday to review their case.
The high court declined to review the 2010 Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that the pastor and parishioners of the Bishop Seabury Church on North Road could not assume ownership of the building and land after they split from the Episcopal Church and its Connecticut diocese.
Gauss, the pastor, and his supporters have exhausted their appeals. They are bound by earlier court orders to relinquish the premises, although they were allowed to stay during the appeal process.
"This ruling brings the litigation over the property to its final conclusion," Karin Hamilton, a spokesperson for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut said Tuesday in a press release. "The judgment entered in favor of the Diocese and the Episcopal Church is now fully enforceable."
The legal battle started in 2007 when Gauss led his parish away from diocesan supervision over several disagreements, including the Episcopal Church's ordination in 2003 of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, and the election of a woman as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. in 2006.
A state Superior Court judge ruled in 2010 that the Connecticut diocese owns the 6.5-acre church site and its contents.
"We took our best shot and that was it," Gauss said when reached Tuesday afternoon. "We're just going to look for a home. The congregation is not going away. We will be somewhere. This Sunday we will still be there. Next week, I don't know. That's up to the diocese."
Hamilton said Diocesan Bishop Ian T. Douglas expressed satisfaction with the decision, but still intends to reach out to Gauss and the leadership of the church.
"This has been a long and difficult process ..." Douglas said. "With the decision of the Supreme Court we can now put this matter behind us and once again turn our full attention to the work of proclaiming and making real God's mission of restoration and reconciliation in all the world."
Hamilton said Douglas met several times with Gauss and the current leadership of Bishop Seabury Anglican Church to discuss their options under the state Supreme Court's decision.
"Now that the high court has refused their petition, Bishop Douglas anticipates working through the options with the group," Hamilton said.
Gauss said Tuesday that the one thing all the options have in common is his departure.
"All of them revolve around me being gone," he said. "We would like to buy it. But that's just one option. But he won't sell it unless I leave."
Douglas said it is not a case of not wanting Gauss gone. Rather, he said, the problem is Gauss is no longer recognized as a priest by the Episcopal Church. Therefore, he said, Gauss could not be included in any plan to return the congregation to the Episcopal fold.
The bishop said he offered to work with the congregation with the associate pastor, the Rev. A. Milton Cheney III.
Douglas said if he were to try to bring in another pastor, or rector, to serve the parish, or if the Seabury members were to accept an option that gave oversight to another bishop — Delegated Episcopal Pastoral oversight, or DEPO — Gauss would still have to be excluded due to his lack of standing in the church.
Douglas said the congregation could choose to associate itself with a Roman Catholic Personal Ordinate to maintain its Anglican rite, although that option, too, would exclude Gauss. Finally, short of leaving the property, Douglas said, the congregation could choose to reorganize as a new congregation and the diocese would be willing to rent the building to them as long as the congregation agreed not to affiliate with either the Anglican Church of North America or the Congregation of North American Anglican Churches, "or any other para-Anglican congregation that seeks to supplant the Anglican church," Douglas said.
The only other option, Douglas said, would be for the congregation to choose to worship elsewhere, in which case the diocese would have to decide the future of the property, including the possibility of starting a new Episcopal congregation.
"I'm willing to listen if they think they have another possible option," he said. "We have had very good talks. The transition to new leadership is always hard, especially when the leader is someone who is charismatic and has been there for more than 30 years, and who has helped to build the church. They have a hard decision to make."
Gauss said the church is looking into renting a building if it cannot work out an agreement.
"They haven't told us when we have to leave," he said. "It could be tomorrow. The chancellor of the diocese and our lawyers are talking to see what resolution can be made."