The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and a group of 11 conservative breakaway congregations wrangled yesterday over ownership of the historic Falls Church, a 276-year-old congregation that until two years ago was one of the crown jewels of the denomination.
During the trial at the Fairfax County Courthouse, witnesses said the Northern Virginia church near the intersection of Lee Highway and Leesburg Pike has been overseen by its own trustees since 1746, when John Trammell, a local landowner, deeded 2 acres to build a church.
A group of Colonists, including George Washington's father, had been meeting since about 1732 at the spot that today has several brick buildings - one dating from 1769 - and a historic graveyard.
"There is no evidence from 1746 on of any other claim to the property," Ken Schrantz, a local title examiner, told the court. For months, he added, he had examined two centuries' worth of land records, bank statements and county and city documents to establish that the church had always held title to the land.
Attorneys for the diocese pointed out that Trammell deeded the Falls Church to a "Truro parish," which during the mid-18th century encompassed three small churches. The Supreme Court ruled in the early 19th century that the successor to "Truro parish" is Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, not one of the breakaway parishes.
But Mr. Schrantz stood his ground, saying he could produce land deeds from 1852 and 1877 showing that trustees for the land came from the Falls Church, not Christ Church.
The court fight over the Falls Church is part of a yearlong multi-trial lawsuit thought to be the largest property battle in Episcopal history. In December 2006 and January 2007, the Falls Church - from which the city of Falls Church gets its name - and 10 other conservative Northern Virginia parishes left the diocese over matters of biblical interpretation and the 2003 consecration of the openly gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson.
But they retained millions of dollars of church property, which the diocese has been trying to wrest back from them ever since. Both sides have called in multiple experts on 18th- and 19th-century property laws to build their cases.
Attorneys for the breakaway churches, all of which are now constituted as the Anglican Diocese of Virginia, called Falls Church administrator Bill Deiss to testify how the church has always been under its own trustees.
Mr. Deiss pointed out that the church's vestry minutes - the details of board of elders meetings - date back to 1873 and that its members have extensively remodeled and improved the property over the centuries, including a $7 million addition in 1992.
"The only historic stuff there is the three walls, the bricks and whoever is in the graveyard," he said.
Attorneys for the Anglican Diocese of Virginia churches focused so much on the inner workings of the Falls Church that Circuit Judge Randy I. Bellows called a halt to the minutiae.
"You're maybe plowing this field a little deeper than it needs to be plowed," he told James Johnson, one of the attorneys for the Anglican Diocese of Virginia.
Mr. Johnson then asked Mr. Deiss whether Christ Church representatives had ever come onto the property or had paid for its many renovations over the years. Mr. Deiss answered no.
Diocesan attorneys said that point was moot and that the diocese had always signed off on any property improvements.
The trial continues Monday with witnesses for the diocese testifying. Also to be discussed is the fate of property belonging to the Episcopal Church of the Word, a Gainesville congregation of the Anglican Diocese of Virginia. Unlike the other churches of that diocese, Church of the Word's land is held by trustees for the diocese, not the church itself.
Judge Bellows said he expects to make a final decision in the case sometime after Nov. 10. To date, all his decisions in the historic case have favored the churches of the Anglican Diocese of Virginia.