Christ Episcopal Church of Alexandria, one of the most venerable parishes in the Diocese of Virginia, has joined a historic lawsuit against several Northern Virginia parishes attempting to leave the denomination.
Members of the 235-year-old parish were informed Sunday at a parish meeting that the diocese will represent them in the largest property dispute in Episcopal Church history, taking place at the Fairfax County Courthouse. The multi-trial case will resume Oct. 14.
Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows has dealt three consecutive defeats to the diocese and the denomination in their battle to retain millions of dollars of property held by 11 churches that fled over issues of biblical authority and the 2003 election of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
The diocese will cite 18th-century cases to argue that the The Falls Church, a 276-year-old congregation that is the oldest of the departing parishes, cannot lay claim to its property on 5.5 acres in the city of Falls Church. Attorneys have produced two 18th-century land deeds that say Christ Church possesses the property.
The deeds, dated March 19 and 20, 1746, say the land was owned by "Truro parish," the designation for Colonial churches in Pohick, Alexandria and Falls Church. The diocese unearthed two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 1815 and 1824 saying that Christ Church, founded in 1773, is the successor to Truro parish and that the Falls Church was a ward of the Alexandria congregation.
The diocese's attorneys say they can prove that Christ Church still owns about 2 acres of what the Falls Church occupies. That part of the property includes the "historic" Falls Church - a brick building completed in 1769.
In order to argue this case in court, the diocese needed Christ Church's permission to act as its proxy. Although the diocese notified opposition attorneys on Sept. 5 that it would represent Christ Church, it was not until Sept. 22 that the vestry, or governing board, was told of the matter. The vestry approved it Sept. 24.
Parishioners were not so accommodating. On Sunday, some worried that Christ Church's involvement - however distant - in a lawsuit could make its finances precarious. The church has a $135,000 deficit, and only 507 of its 2,459 members - or one-fifth - actually give.
"There were quite a few people who were stunned and said, 'We don't need this,' " said one former vestry member who asked to remain anonymous. "[Parish leaders] didn't give it much time."
One vestry member who voted against Christ Church's participation said several parishioners expressed reservations.
"We were reassured during the all-parish meeting that we would not be intervening in the lawsuit as a plaintiff or defendant," said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. "But apparently I was not the only one who was uncomfortable with the vestry taking a vote on such a serious matter without first consulting the congregation."