Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Christ Church Alexandria jumps into the fray

Divisions worsen. From here.

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."


Kevin said...

I'm VERY sorry for Christ Church and The Falls Church, for reading this article it seems that Christ Church parishioners really didn't wanted this but are a part of some far off plan in New York City and Richmond to keep the hostilities going.

A. S. Haley said...

BB, I'm on the road and so don't have access to my old emails, but if one of your readers who emailed me about this situation last week reads this, he has my permission to copy and paste my response to him in the comments here. I looked at the old Supreme Court case they are citing, and while it does say that Christ Church in 1815 was the successor of Truro parish (Falls Church at the time having fallen into disuse), there is a lot that must have happened since 1815 that would make this claim spurious. A good deal of water has passed under the bridge since 1815.

ettu said...

What a fascinating exercise in historical documents. I am astounded. Lawyers who really dig things - literally in this case - wow!

BabyBlue said...

This is odd, though - since Truro Parish (which was like a county today) divided in the 1760s. The land that the Falls Church is on ceased to be Truro Parish and became Fairfax Parish - not Truro Parish.

Another problem is that there was a horrific war that went through Virginia in the 1860s and old churches were smashed and burned or used as stables and hospitals as people fled. So much was lost. It's so interesting because you are reading along in the history of the older parishes and then there's a big blank where documents are gone - even in Richmond, most especially in Richmond, because of that war. Suddenly the stark realization of what division can do sets in as both sides read through the document history and see - close up and personal - the cost of division on our land, which is why the Division Statute was created in the first place.

Instead of battling over deeds (many of which were lost in the war) and tearing each other apart (as the Diocese now seems bent to do with Christ Church Alexandria), congregations would vote. It's the American way, something we could all respect.

We can see in this instance with Christ Church being dragged into the litigation of why this law is so necessary. It's difficult to piece together a history when entire chunks of it are missing because they were burned by troops on both sides. And the diocese can't simply make up the missing parts to fit their case - causing amenity not only in their own case, but with the people of Christ Church Alexandria who have been dragged into this at the last minute.

This is idiocy born of desperation, and it is being done on the backs of the people of Christ Church Alexandria. It's shameful.

What matters is the vote of the congregations who have lived, worked, breathed, and financed the livelihood of these properties, the ones who have paid for its upkeep, have kept the lights on, have cleaned and cared for that property, the people vote and the majority rules. That's America.

Truro Parish was a COUNTY - not a church. It's confusing because the Episcopal Church uses the word one way and the Commonwealth of Virginia uses the word another way. Even today, Truro Church is called Truro Parish because it's a church parish, not a mission. Truro was named after the parish, which remained name Truro after the division with the area where The Falls Church is located became Fairfax Parish in around 1764-65. In fact, Truro Church was named Truro to try to retain the old name, the original church was called Zion Church. But today "Truro Parish" is Fairfax County, Virginia.

The present Falls Church historic building was built after the division of Truro Parish and Fairfax Parish, in 1769 - which would mean it was built in Fairfax Parish, not even Truro Parish (there was an even older Falls Church building that would have been built when the area was called Truro Parish but it's long gone). Christ Church Alexandria apparently wasn't founded until the late 1770s when The Falls Church was in Fairfax Parish, not Truro Parish. It just doesn't make any sense.

Fairfax Parish and Truro Parish eventually became Fairfax County, which is what it is today and Christ Church, Falls Church, Pohick Church, and yes, even Truro Church are all in Fairfax County.

If Christ Church Alexandria is the owner of an entire county that is news, big news.

But perhaps it's not The Falls Church, but Pohick that should be worried. Pohick remained in Truro Parish after the division (though there was a fight about that too). That church suffered a lot during the Civil War as well. No wonder there were rumors all over the diocese that the Diocese of Virginia was seeking out Pohick's deeds too.

Perhaps Pohick should start sending their bills to Christ Church and then lock their doors before the Diocese comes a-knockin'.


Bernie Barfoot said...

Even if Christ Church's ownership claim were valid, it seems to me that The Falls Church could claim ownership of the disputed land under the legal principle of adverse possession. This would not work, however, if Christ Church could prove that it had given The Falls Church permission to use the land.

Andy said...

It would appear that 815 is now aware of their tenuous situation and has opted to mount a "hanging chad style" offensive. This is truly tragic.

I have to wonder in the midst of this all; if Dante penned his Commedia Divina in 2008, on which circle would the PB and Mr. Booth-Beers be found?

Take Heart ADV

Anonymous said...

FWIW, based on no inside knowledge, I'm guessing 815 lawyers are relying on help from historian Joan Gunderson and/or her writings. I believe JG is also active in Pittsburgh on the reappraiser side.

I remember bb writing several posts regarding arguments in this article by JG on VA church history a few years back when reappraisers originally used JG's writing to dispute ownership of historic VA parishes. I believe JG and Mark McCall have also recently argued related issues back and forth, although MM looks from legal expertise and JG from historical perspective.

If this were purely an academic exercise, or a novel of intrigue and politics (rumors in the diocese...VA church vestrymen's portraits overlooking the court room, etc.), it probably would be interesting, but unfortunately, there are flesh and blood members of the Body of Christ involved. May the Lord bless and protect His people, and may His spirit bring unity and discernment. I appreciate your perspective bb, and also pray for God's comfort, peace and wisdom for you personally.


Pageantmaster said...

Another Cain and Abel situation.

Prayers for all in the Falls and Alexandria

Pat Kashtock said...

Wow -- this is totally crazy. The people of Christ Church have my sympathy. None for their vestry, though. High-handedness is not right.

"Parish" is an odd word. Here in VA I came to know it as interchangeable with "church." But when I went to Louisiana to help after Katrina, what we call counties are called parishes, like St. Bernard Parish that took so much damage. Took a bit of getting used to.

Pat Kashtock
Take It for What It's Worth