There were three things that Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for: author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. How appropriate that today, on all days, the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Virginia chose to hear oral arguments on the appeal of The Episcopal Church to the Circuit Court victory of the Virginia churches that voted to separate from the Diocese of Virginia and join CANA in 2006.
It was a clear crisp morning in Richmond as I stood in line to get into the court building. Eventually, the courtroom would be so packed, a video feed was put into other rooms so that those left without a seat could watch the proceedings in the courtroom. Even before the courtroom doors open, I could see Bishop Martyn Minns, Bishop of CANA, and Bishop Shannon Johnston, the new bishop of the Diocese of Virginia, chatting amicably outside the courtroom doors. I also saw the rector of The Falls Church, John Yates, engaged in polite conversation with the priest-in-charge of the Episcopal congregation set up by the Diocese of Virginia. For many it was a chance to see old friends - and old collegues as the attorneys came in and filed toward the front to take their seats and wait their turn.
First up was George Sommerville, who said he was for The Episcopal Church but was actually for The Diocese of Virginia. Of all those who spoke - he probably was the least interrupted, at least at first. Once the orals got underway it was clear that the justices were not that interested in listening to presentations but to ask their own questions and in many cases grill the attorneys on both sides regarding the points of the case.
The questions were familiar ones - what is a separation, what is a branch, was are the neutral principles, has a separation occurred, and the justices grilled the attorneys on these points over and over again.
Heather Anderson was then up to speak for The Episcopal Church and she set out her ambitious outline for what she wanted to speak on, only to be interrupted - as George Sommerview was - on particular points by the justices. A highlight for me was when she asserted that there is no structure in the Anglican Communion. I guess that meeting in Jamaica was - what?
Gordon Coffee introduced Steffen Johnson who spoke for the Virginia churches that separated from the Episcopal Church and joined CANA. It wasn't long either before the justices were peppering him with questions as well.
Duncan Getchell, the Commonwealth of Virginia Solicitor General was impressive, speaking to the constitutionality of Statute 57-9, but also providing context for the justice questions. They seemed to give him more speaking room than the attorneys and he made some excellent points to the constitutionality of the statute as well as calmly and succinctly answering the justices questions. Very impressive.
And then it was over. It went so fast, it was hard to believe it was over - but the fact many of us on both sides had the run over by a truck expression on our faces. It was exhausting, sitting there listening intently, praying fervently, and mindful of old friends on the other side of the aisle.
Now the case is in the hands of the Supreme Court of Virginia. A ruling is expected around June 11th. Stay tuned for more. Heading back on the road now.
UPDATE: Was thinking in the car on the way home about Steffen Johnson's performance in front of the Supreme Court. If we were thinking that he would be able to make oral arguments like someone participating in a debate team - well, think again. It was clear that the justices had questions on their mind and that is what they wanted to spend the time doing. If I could describe Steffen's performance I would call it "grace under pressure." That was how Ernest Hemingway described courage and that was what Steffen demonstrated as he took volley after volley from the justices - grace under pressure.
One of the attorneys - who has clerked at the VA Supreme Court when he was first starting out in law - said that it's difficult to discern what the justices may be thinking by the questions they ask. Some of the questions asked by the justices were thoughtful, illustrating that they have read the briefs and they have read the decision and it's accompanying exhibits. Some seemed to be curious and asked curious questions.
One of the questions asked over and over had to do with defining a division. It was quite an interesting entry into the events of today, since the best illustration of division was sitting right in front of the justices, pouring out into other hearing rooms where the court hooked up live video feeds. How does one know there's been a division? The energy in the room - marked by well representation from all sides - was a leading indicator. If the Episcopal Church was serious in maintaining in front of the Supreme Court that there has been no division and what constitutes (and when questioned repeatedly about whether CANA was a branch from that division, Heather - representing The Episcopal Church - finally responded that she did not know) - it might have been better if all that energy coming from the Diocese's headquarters just a stone's throw from the court had stayed over at St. Paul's and out of the court room.
As it was, the energy in the room demonstrated why the lawmaker who first introduced VA Statute 57-9 was wise in finding a way to settle property disputes without warfare - by the simple democratic principle as a vote of the majority.
More time was taken on defining what constitutes a branch - perhaps illustrated best by what happens to a river when it "branches" off from the original river. It started from a common point and then branches off, becoming a separate entity though one can trace its origin to the first river. The Virginia congregations voted to separate, branching off from The Episcopal Church - it's point of origin - and joining with another branch of the Anglican Communion. It's connection remains as a point of origin of the Episcopal Church, again this was demonstrated by the remarkable extensions of hospitality outside the court room doors, but it is also clear that the Virginia congregations joined another branch of the Anglican Communion demonstrated by the presence of two American bishops in the Anglican Church of Nigeria - a fellow province as is The Episcopal Church in the Anglican Communion.
It was remarkable that The Episcopal Church did not dare to speak the name "Anglican Communion." Heather waved it off, saying that there was no structure (despite the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury himself has indicated that he views "the Church" as the Anglican Communion and keeps attending these structural gatherings, such as the gathering of the Primates, the ACC, the Joint Board of Primates and the ACC (which is morphing into a Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion) and the gatherings of the Primates themselves.
In the next two months, it is probably the best idea just to keep this matter in prayer. There really are no winners in this litigation - and here at the Cafe we continue pray that we can mark the Archbishop of Canterbury's charge at the Church of England Synod this year to seek out and indeed find "the vehicles for sharing perspectives, communicating protest, yes, even, negotiating distance or separation, that might spare us a worsening of the situation and the further reduction of Christian relationship to vicious polemic and stony-faced litigation."
It's still not too late.
And so this is a dedication to the Episcopalians in the court room today. Yes, and Heather too - I saw her after the hearing and she was standing outside the court room door and I have to say - even though I strongly disagree with her assertions - she too gave a very brave performance.
And to all those who have been in the trenches together these many, many years - our fate is now in the hands of five men and women. But it is God who does the calling. May we hear His voice and follow Him - where ever He may lead.
What else can we do at this hour but pray?