There’s always an owner, of course — there are few concepts more disfavored in the law than real property without an owner. But when it comes to chapels and church buildings, the question of just who owns them can get messy. The latest example: a congregation in Orange County that is trying to leave the Episcopal fold and take its building with it. The congregation just lost the latest round in a fight with the national Episcopal Church and its Los Angeles Diocese over who owns the congregation’s building. [Hat tip: the Religion Clause; see also the Orange County Register story or, for all the legal details, the full appellate court decision.] This story raises a couple of interesting questions for Mormon readers.
First, who owns Mormon buildings, such as the chapel you meet in every Sunday? Unlike the local ownership arrangement of many other denominations, it is not the local LDS congregation or the stake (the rough LDS equivalent of a diocese) that owns LDS buildings. Instead, it is an organizational unit of the LDS Church at the national level. I’m pretty sure it is the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that owns chapels and the like, with other units organized to hold and manage other property, such as Intellectual Reserve, Inc. for intellectual property like copyrights. And websites (check the small print at the bottom of the page).
There’s nothing nefarious about this ownership arrangement — it is an efficient and rational (in the economic sense) way to own and manage assets. It makes perfect sense to Mormons who take seriously the LDS claim that the Church represents (as an ideal) the Kingdom of God on earth. That is a global vision. Protestants can fiddle around with local ownership and squabble about who owns the buildings in part because they don’t take such global or divine claims seriously as applied to their own decentralized ecclesiastical institutions. Still, the average Mormon attending church on Sunday and thinking of the building as “their” chapel might be surprised to learn that the ward (as a unit) doesn’t even own the staplers in the library.
To really grasp the upside of this arrangement — and to see how unique is the LDS approach to the issue of ownership and management of church property — consider what happens when the decision is made to refurbish an LDS chapel. The building is closed for a few months and the wards or branches that ordinarily meet there are assigned to other buildings. Then the ward members all troop off to the newly designated buildings for several months, where they are tolerated if not celebrated each Sunday by the new building’s regular congregations. From time to time permanent reassignments are made when required by LDS growth or other demographic changes in an area or community. I don’t know of any other denomination that could orchestrate this level of congregational cooperation or whose membership would so willingly support this sort of building reassignment.
The second question the news story brings to mind is whether there have ever been LDS fights over property. The best example I can think of is the Kirtland Temple, which was the focus of ownership fights for decades after the main branch of the Church left Kirtland for Missouri in 1838. The Kirtland Temple is presently owned and managed by the Community of Christ, which (I’m told) graciously allows the LDS (Utah) Church to use the building from time to time for special services. A more recent example is the contentious decision by the Church Building Committee and by local LDS leaders to demolish the Coalville Tabernacle in 1971 (see Edward Geary, “The Last Days of the Coalville Tabernacle,” Dialogue, Vol 5, No. 4 (Winter 1970):42-50).