The breakaway Episcopal congregations in Virginia, who left in 2006 over the American denomination's liberal theology, have lost the latest round in the legal battle over the church property. Some have warned their members to expect to move within a few months.
In a 113-page ruling issued Jan. 10, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows reversed a ruling he made in 2008 giving custody to the conservative congregations. The Virginia Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 2010 and ordered a new trial.
At issue is ownership of seven Virginia churches, including two prominent, historic congregations that trace their roots to George Washington: Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church, for which the city of Falls Church is named. But it is not clear that the denomination, on the verge of finally winning the battle that began in 2006, has either the members or the money to keep operating the churches themselves.
The disputes within the Episcopal Church have raged openly since 2003, when the denomination consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire who had left his wife. The issues have since broadened to a range of theological issues, including fundamental interpretations of Scripture.
The lawsuit itself has been winding its way through the courts since 2007, shortly after Truro and The Falls Church voted overwhelmingly in December 2006 to break away from The Episcopal Church and align with the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a group supported by the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
The Episcopal Church, with about 2 million members, is a U.S. affiliate of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide. Many of the international branches in the Anglican church, especially those in Africa, are far more theologically conservative than the American and British wings.
Bellows' initial 2008 ruling hinged on interpretation of a unique law in Virginia dating to the Civil War era governing ownership of churches whose congregations and denominations were split over the issue of slavery. But the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the law did not apply to this dispute, and in 2010 ordered Bellows to settle the issue on more mundane issues of contract and real estate law.
The property held by the churches was to be turned over to the Diocese, as well as personal property of the churches including bank accounts, funds, chairs, pews, Bibles, and Prayer Books. "It was surprising because of [Bellows'] previous decisions which were in favor of the churches," Scott Ward, a Warden for the Falls Church, said. "No one assumed he would rule the same way but it was certainly a very disappointing change in outcome."
Henry Burt, secretary for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, said Bellows' ruling Tuesday was one of several across the nation in recent months where similar disputes have been settled in favor of The Episcopal Church.
Last year, state supreme courts in Connecticut and Georgia ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church. Last month, Episcopalians in Savannah moved back into the historic Christ Church in Savannah for the first time since 2007 after a breakaway conservative congregation vacated the building in light of the court ruling.
The judge still has to construct a final order to put Tuesday's ruling into effect, which will be complicated: It involves 42 separate deeds, as well as sorting out various personal property within the church.
The one minor victory Bellows gave to the conservative congregations was that they could keep any donations and personal property associated with the churches that they acquired since the split.
And if the Anglican churches appeal, Bellows could stay his order from taking effect while the appeal goes forward. Ward says that the Falls Church is "actively praying about an appeal" and the churches have 30 days to decide. Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, told World Virginia that the churches are working together, even if they choose different courses of action: "There have been a lot of leadership meetings with clergy and we are now at a place where one church will act in one way and one church in another, but decisions will be made in unison."
If Bellows' ruling stands, Burt said the Episcopal Church will welcome back all congregants, including those who voted to break away. "The tagline of the church for the last 30 years has been `The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,' and that has never been more true than it is today," Burt said.
That seems unlikely. Jim Oakes, a spokesman for the seven churches, said the theological problems are very deep. "We didn't separate over a dispute about the color of the draperies," he said. "These are very serious issues."
And Virginia's Anglican Diocese now may be wondering if it should have been more careful what it wished for. A report by the Institute on Religion and Democracy said that the legal victory may prove "pyrrhic." Most of the "continuing congregations" that stand to take possession of the disputed properties - bodies who split off from the seven congregations when they voted to separate from the denomination - simply cannot afford them. "The state of these continuing congregations - often by their own admission - can be described as at best poorly prepared to maintain and operate large church properties, or at worst, teetering on the edge of being non-viable," noted the IRD report.
The Falls Church, for example, has average weekly attendance of around 2,000 and a $6 million annual budget. The continuing congregation of that church has a reported average attendance of 74. Similarly, the continuing congregation of the Church of the Epiphany in Herndon reported 2010 income, including pledges, of $50,000 and average attendance of 20, according to the Institute for Religion and Democracy. The congregation that now maintains the facilities has average attendance of 380 and a budget of $800,000.
The diocese, itself financially stretched, may be in no position to offer the continuing congregations much aid. "According to self-reported statistics, the diocese has lost 26 percent of its attendance in the past decade and has ceased planting new churches, despite significant population growth in Virginia. With the rapid increase of the median age of Episcopalians, there may not be 'a future generation of Episcopalians' to worship in these properties," continues the Institute report. Anglican officials have suggested they may end up selling "non-consecrated" properties not received in the judgment to pay legal fees.
The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Shannon Johnston, said that "while we are grateful for the decision in our favor, we remain mindful of the toll this litigation has taken on all parties involved, and we continue to pray for all affected by the litigation."
"Sadly, the declining Episcopal Church appears more interested in property than people, and more interested in the recovery of property than in reconciliation," said Jeff Walton, IRD Anglican Action director. Besides costing each side about $3 million in legal fees, it has damaged the church's witness, he said.
"The Episcopal Church should take a long look at its harsh, take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with church property - something that has quickly become one of its hallmarks," he added. "The denomination should have allowed the diocese to sit down at the table with the departing congregations and negotiate a fair settlement, as was initially proposed."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.