|The Fall Church, Falls Church|
Seven Anglican congregations in Virginia that are parties to the church property case brought by The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia are reviewing today’s ruling by the Fairfax County Circuit Court that the property should be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese.
The Circuit Court heard the case last spring after the Virginia Supreme Court remanded it in June 2010. The congregations previously had succeeded in their efforts on the Circuit Court level to defend the property that they bought and paid for.
“Although we are profoundly disappointed by today’s decision, we offer our gratitude to Judge Bellows for his review of this case. As we prayerfully consider our legal options, we above all remain steadfast in our effort to defend the historic Christian faith. Regardless of today’s ruling, we are confident that God is in control, and that He will continue to guide our path,” said Jim Oakes, spokesperson for the seven Anglican congregations.
|Truro Church, Fairfax|
The seven Anglican congregations are members of the newly established Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic, a member diocese within the Anglican Church in North America. Bishop John Guernsey of the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic has expressed to leaders of the seven congregations, “Our trust is in the Lord who is ever faithful. He is in control and He will enable you to carry forward your mission for the glory of Jesus Christ and the extension of His Kingdom. Know that your brothers and sisters in Christ continue to stand with you and pray for you.”
|Church of the Apostles, Fairfax|
The court ordered that all property subject to its ruling be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
Those properties are: The Falls Church, Falls Church; Truro Church, Fairfax; St. Paul's Church, Haymarket; Church of the Apostles, Fairfax; St. Margaret's Church, Woodbridge; St. Stephen's Church, Heathsville; and Church of the Epiphany, Herndon.
UPDATE: Ruling is here.
Here is coverage from The Washington Post:
Virginia judge has ruled against seven conservative congregations that broke away from the Episcopal Church in 2006, rejecting their argument that they should be able to keep valuable church property that the national denomination also claims.
The case has drawn worldwide attention because it involves a cluster of large, prominent churches with well-known conservative pastors and because the issues at hand — particularly the Episcopal Church’s continued acceptance of same-sex relationships as equal to heterosexual ones — are roiling much of organized religion. Various Protestant congregations, in particular, have wound up in litigation across the country.Read it all here.
The 113-page ruling was handed down Tuesday by Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows. It was not immediately clear whether the seven congregations would appeal. They are part of a movement called the Anglican Church in North America, and all believe that they — not the Episcopal Church — represent true Anglicanism on the continent.
If they decide not to appeal, the seven congregations would have to vacate their churches, including some of the largest and most prominent in the region. Among them are The Falls Church and Truro Church in Northern Virginia, where thousands of people worship.
When the congregations voted in 2006 and 2007 to separate from the Episcopal Church, almost all their congregants sided with the conservatives. Just four, much smaller groups who did not want to leave the Episcopal Church remained together as congregations. They have been worshiping in basements and other temporary spaces during the litigation.
“The core issue for us is not physical property, but theological and moral truth and the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world,” said Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church. “Wherever we worship, we remain Anglicans because we cannot compromise our historic faith. Like our spiritual forebears in the Reformation, ‘Here we stand. So help us God. We can do no other.’ ”
Bellows was charged in this phase of the case with deciding whether the diocese or the congregants owned the property under Virginia real estate law. Evidence included questions about who paid for the property, who maintained it and whose names were on the deeds, among other issues.
According to a news release from the Diocese of Virginia, one of the largest Episcopal dioceses in the country, Bellows ruled that the national denomination and the diocese have “a contractual and proprietary interest” in each of the properties subject to the litigation. The court ordered that all property subject to its ruling be turned over to the Diocese, the release said.
“Our goal throughout this litigation has been to return faithful Episcopalians to their church homes and Episcopal properties to the mission of the Church,” the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Episcopal bishop of Virginia, said in a statement late Tuesday night.
And from the Associated Press (AP):
A judge has ruled that the Episcopal Church should be restored as the owner of several historic churches in Virginia, years after the denomination was essentially evicted by local congregations dismayed with Episcopals' liberal theology.
The Falls Church
The judge on Tuesday reversed a ruling he made in 2008 giving custody to the conservative congregations. The Virginia Supreme Court overturned that ruling and ordered a new trial.
At issue is ownership of seven Virginia churches, including two 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.
The congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church in 2006 following the Episcopals' consecration of an openly gay bishop and other theological disputes.
The conservative congregations are considering an appeal.
Anglican Curmudgeon has first thoughts here. He writes:
The opinion is remarkable for its exhaustive consideration of every possible Virginia statute and previous case (including an unreported one) that could bear on the issues at stake. Along the way, it notably holds that the Dennis Canon (and its local diocesan equivalent) were ineffective per se to create a trust interest in favor of the diocese or national Church. But the bulk of the opinion appears (on a very quick first read) to be devoted to arriving at the same result (i.e., as if the Dennis Canon and its local equivalent had established a trust) by other means. It reaches its conclusion in favor of ECUSA and its diocese by drawing upon a minutely detailed analysis of the course of conduct between the parishes in question and the former entities over more than a hundred years (and in the case of Falls Church and a few others, for many more years than that -- but in the case of the Church of the Epiphany, on a course of conduct extending for just the first twenty of the last twenty-four years).Read it all here. Curmudgeon will update with a closer reading soon.
In doing so, however, the court ends up equating what it terms a "proprietary and contractual interest" of the diocese in individual parish property to the functional legal equivalent of an express or implied trust in favor of the diocese (and the national Church). And since it recognizes that Virginia law does not allow express or implied trusts in favor of denominations, the marvel is that Judge Bellows can still conclude, by drawing heavily upon his interpretation of a Virginia statute (§ 57-16.1), that the parishes effectively controlled their own properties only for so long as they remained constituent members of the Episcopal Church (USA) -- which is exactly what the Dennis Canon states, in haec verba.
The result is a carefully-crafted holding that appears (at first blush, at any rate) to be insulated against any federal constitutional grounds for overturning it -- unless it can be argued that the "proprietary and contractual interest" which the court found to be decisive is simply the inherent byproduct of being affiliated with what the Virginia Supreme Court already deemed (without any distinctions) to be a "hierarchical church." If that is the net effect of this decision, one has to wonder whether or not Judge Bellows has given the Episcopal Church (USA) an unassailable preference by the back door, and so thereby "established" it as a specially preferred type of church for purposes of resolving property disputes, in violation of the First Amendment.
Here is a summary of the ruling from the Court's opinion:
|St. Paul's Church, Haymarket|
|St. Stephen's, Heathsville|
3. The vestry empowered to elect directors to the Falls Church Endowment Fund is the vestry recognized by the Diocese as the Episcopal vestry of The Falls Church, that is to say, the Continuing Congregation.
The Diocese of Virginia's press release is here:
|St. Margaret's Woodbridge|
“Our goal throughout this litigation has been to return faithful Episcopalians to their church homes and Episcopal properties to the mission of the Church,” said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia.
The court ruled that the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia have “a contractual and proprietary interest” in each of the properties subject to the litigation. The court ordered that all property subject to its ruling be turned over to the Diocese.
|Church of the Epiphany, Herndon|
Bishop Johnston added, “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.”
Hast thou not known?
Hast thou not heard,
that the everlasting God,
the LORD, the Creator
of the ends of the earth,
fainteth not, neither is weary?
There is no searching
of His understanding.
He giveth power to the faint,
and to them that have no might
He increaseth strength.
Even the youths
shall faint and be weary,
and the young men
shall utterly fall;
but they that wait
upon the LORD
shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings
they shall run
and not be weary,
and they shall walk
and not faint.
UPDATE: The local "Patch" - an online newspaper - sent a reporter to last night's Prayer & Worship service at Truro and did an amazing job covering what we all know is a complex case. From here:
Truro Church members huddled in small groups to pray for the unity and preservation of their congregation Wednesday night. They asked for support for their vestry, the church's staff and the congregation's children in light of the latest ruling in their long-fought battle to keep the church they've cultivated for over a century.
The Rev'd Tory Baucum
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows told Truro and six other congregations in the Northern Virginia area on Tuesday to give their church property to the diocese they divorced years ago.
The ruling comes after almost five years of litigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars in congregation-donated defense funds.
Now Truro is stuck in a limbo of sorts. The "unfortunate and ungodly" litigation, as described by Rector Tory Baucum, is coming to a close, and not on a good note for Truro's members.
"I was not happy yesterday," Baucum said. "But I was not devastated. I do have complete confidence that we are walking with the Lord."
Truro leadership urged its members to stay positive and show mercy and grace in dealing with the likely loss of their church. Bishop John Guernsey, of the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic, a branch of the Anglican Church of North America, dropped by the service with a few positive words for members.
"I love you, I love Truro, and you are all so dear," he said. "I'm so thankful we're in this together. Our diocese changed overnight and I can't wait to see what [God] does with us."
What follows is a summary of what convinced Truro and the other congregations to separate from The Episcopal Church (TEC) and what the court decision means for them.
There is more - read it all here. It was a very special informal Evening Prayer service - there will be a time for questions and answers this Sunday at the Rector's Forum.
Jeff Walton writes an informative piece on where things stand right now in anticipating a decision not to appeal Judge Bellows opinion. From here:
|The Falls Church main worship space|
If the departing congregations decide not to appeal, the Episcopal Church has won a major legal victory – but one that may prove to be pyrrhic.
Who's moving in?Framing their litigation as “seeking to recover Episcopal Church property,” diocesan officials have stated that their goal is to “return faithful Episcopalians to their church homes and Episcopal properties to the mission of the Church.”
A majority of members in the seven Anglican churches in 2006-2007 voted to sever their ties to the Episcopal Church and the diocese following disputes over the redefinition and reinterpretation of Scripture. These churches became part of The Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) under the authority of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. They included some of the diocese's largest and fastest growing churches. In some cases, it’s unclear what Episcopalians will now reclaim evacuated church buildings.
The congregations of Church of the Apostles and Truro Church, both in Fairfax, Virginia, departed in their entirety; there are no continuing Episcopal congregations to inherit these buildings.
Other parishes, such as The Falls Church, in the city of Falls Church, and Church of the Epiphany in Herndon, Virginia, have seen small continuing Episcopal congregations separate from the much larger departing groups. These continuing congregations have meanwhile been meeting in nearby rented facilities. 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.
With an annual budget of approximately $6 million and an average weekend attendance of about 2,000, The Falls Church (Anglican) will be displaced by a continuing Episcopal congregation with an average 2010 attendance reported as 74 persons. Figures provided in the annual report of the continuing congregation list a budget of $249,406 that has the congregation operating in a deficit and receiving special grant money from the diocese.
“It is clear that this deficit cannot be sustained as we move forward,” wrote Jim Councilor, the Episcopal congregation’s treasurer. “Without increased income, our Vestry will need to make some difficult operational decisions to ensure that we operate within our means.”
Since the release of the annual report, the congregation’s priest-in-charge has left to assist at another congregation and has not been replaced. The former assistant now serves as the only paid staff.
While the continuing Episcopal congregation from The Falls Church currently pays $9,000 a year in facility costs to Falls Church Presbyterian Church for worship and office space, the Anglican congregation expends approximately $750,000 a year to maintain and operate the much larger home church campus.
Despite running a deficit, the continuing congregation in Falls Church seems downright stable compared to the continuing Episcopal congregation of Church of the Epiphany. This congregation quickly cycled through three different priests since the split, while a fourth (who serves part-time) is working with a consultant on “refocusing the sustainability of the parish.”
Before the split, Church of the Epiphany reported $800,000 in annual plate-and-pledge income and average weekend attendance of 380. The continuing Episcopal parish now reports plate-and-pledge income of approximately $50,000 and an attendance average of fewer than 20 persons in 2010. The most recent treasurer’s report listed that the church has $36,542 cash-on-hand.
The Epiphany continuing Episcopal congregation has “…fewer people than most people might consider viable…” according to the parish report of the current priest-in-charge.
In a position to subsidize?
|Truro Church campus|
According to officials on both sides of the dispute cited in the Fairfax Times, both the Anglican group and Episcopal Diocese have spent in excess of $3 million each in litigation costs.
“Non-consecrated” properties owned by the churches could include rectories, administrative or education buildings. Both Truro Church and The Falls Church own such downtown properties, which could conceivably generate enough to pay down litigation fees. One-time property sales would not ensure ongoing operating income long-term, however.
While the diocese has provided small grants to the continuing Episcopal congregations, it is not in a position to subsidize them long-term, especially with increasing operating costs that come with church properties. Past Bishop of Virginia Peter Lee began retirement three months early, citing the need to reduce expenses for the diocese. Similarly, current Bishop Shannon S. Johnston has expressed dissatisfaction at the relatively low contribution from parishes in the diocese. According to the bishop, the average percentage of parish funds set aside for the diocese is among the lowest in the Episcopal Church.
It isn’t just a reduced level of giving that the Diocese of Virginia is facing. 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.
A way forward?
|Tens of thousands of dollars were spent in snow removal in '09.|
Having abandoned the practice of church planting, Virginia Episcopalians seem unlikely to grow their financially vulnerable congregations. The Falls Church continuing Episcopal congregation lists only an increase of 10 attendees in the past three years, with few baptisms and confirmations. Diocesan officials may be hoping that a large number of former Episcopalians will stay tethered to the property, thus returning to the Episcopal fold. If only 5 percent of the Anglican congregation remains with the property, it would more than double the attendance at the Episcopal parish.
In a press release issued immediately after the court ruling, diocesan officials may have indicated their own short-term proposal for the properties:
“We hope that this ruling will lead to our congregations returning to worship in their church homes in the near future, while finding a way to support the CANA congregations as they plan their transition,” said Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the Diocese and chief of staff.
“Support” for the CANA (departing) congregations has not been a stated concern of the diocese in the past. In seeking to avoid both the public relations discomfort of empty buildings and the financial burden of maintaining such properties, the diocese may seek to enter into short term lease agreements with the Anglican parishes.
Other departing parishes that entered into earlier legal settlement with the diocese, including Church of Our Savior near Leesburg, Virginia, were given the option of leasing their existing spaces from the diocese in exchange for disaffiliation with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). It remains to be seen if such an option would be presented to the other departing parishes, or if they would accept. It also remains to be seen if the diocese ultimately attempts to sell consecrated properties. Collectively, the value of all properties for the departing parishes has been estimated to be worth as much as $40 million.
Read it all here.
Bishop John Guernsey writes to the seven churches affected by the ruling.
To the Clergy, Vestries and People of:
Church of the Apostles
Church of the Epiphany
The Falls Church
St. Margaret’s Anglican Church
St. Paul’s Church
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church
Grace and peace to you in Jesus Christ our Lord.
As many of you have already heard, Judge Bellows found against our churches and in favor of The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in the lawsuits that TEC and the Diocese filed against the congregations.
I want to convey to all of you who are affected by last night’s court ruling how profoundly moved I am by your bold stand for the Gospel. You are a witness to many as you remain steadfast in your faith in Jesus Christ.
The ruling stirs many deep feelings, yet we know that our Lord is mightily at work. The Apostle Paul knew great hardship and disappointment and loss, but he knew a greater reality, as well. He knew the transforming power of Jesus Christ in the midst of adversity. He testified to that when he wrote, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
As we’ve said all along, the real issue is not property, but our commitment to the truth of the Scriptures and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Our trust is in the Lord who is ever faithful. He is in control and He will enable you to carry forward your mission for His glory and the extension of His Kingdom.
Be assured that your brothers and sisters in this Diocese and in the Anglican Church in North America continue to stand with you and pray for you.
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. John A. M. Guernsey
Bishop, Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic
Read it all here.