Richmond Times Dispatch
Sunday, May 20, 2007
By JAMES OAKES
Perhaps it is all too fitting that the latest flashpoint in the struggle for religious freedom is right here in Virginia. Those seeking religious liberty enshrined that idea in our Constitution. It is a grievous commentary that centuries later there is a growing rift between those of us desiring to freely worship and serve God, and those who threaten to keep us from doing so.
The recently formed Anglican District of Virginia is being embraced by the worldwide Anglican Communion -- 77 million members -- distinctly because we have chosen to hold steadfast to the faith and to Scripture. It was the Anglican Communion's authority that was formally rejected by The Episcopal Church (USA) at its 2003 convention.
Whatever schism that may be occurring was initiated, and has been perpetuated, by the Episcopal Church. We have argued unsuccessfully for years against the Episcopal Church's new course; now we have severed our ties to it. If it wants to continue on its prodigal course to revise and even reinvent Christianity, sadly, we can do nothing to stop it.
Unfortunately, the church does not intend to honor our decision to remain faithful to the scriptural authority it so forcefully rejects. Instead, the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia have undertaken lawsuits to force us from the very churches our parishioners and their families have worshiped in for generations.
THESE LAWSUITS have continued in spite of the clear message from the leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion at its recent meeting in Tanzania. The Episcopal Church is out of step not just with us, but with Anglicans around the globe.
The Episcopal Church leaders' decision to chart their own theological path isn't enough for them; they want to take our houses of worship as well. They filed lawsuits claiming ownership even though their names are nowhere on the deeds of our churches. They have also taken this legal action despite repeated assurances they wanted to settle the issue amicably if our congregations voted to sever our ties to them.
Even now, lawyers for the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church continue legal maneuverings clearly designed to force our churches to spend money on legal defense when it could be spent on serving the community, missionary work overseas, and spreading the gospel. Personally suing individual leaders and members of these churches, many of whom serve voluntarily without any monetary compensation, is anything but Christian and can only further alienate the many people we all hope to reach with the love of Christ.
Whoever thought American citizens would have to fight for their own religious freedom against an American church in the land of religious freedom? The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia threaten to bring the full force of their legal and financial resources down upon Christians who simply want to worship and serve Christ freely and peacefully. Their betrayal only strengthens our resolve.
We always believed these property issues could be settled cordially and equitably. We were disappointed when the Episcopal Church chose to cut off negotiations and stunned when they filed lawsuits against our churches, clergy, and elected lay leaders.
IT'S HARD TO understand the Episcopal Church's motivation for attacking us. In good conscience we are remaining steadfast in our faith and have chosen to affirm the authority of Scripture and the worldwide Anglican Communion.
In its formal response to the Anglican Communion's call to return to the authority of Scripture, the Episcopal Church said: "We cannot accept what would be injurious to this Church and could well lead to its permanent division." Allow us to point out the painful irony of this statement, as it is the Episcopal Church's decision to reject the authority of God's word four years ago that has actually been gravely injurious. It was the decision then that has caused the division the Church's leaders claim they seek to avoid now.
In the meantime, while it appears the strategy of the Church and the diocese is to try to intimidate us through baseless lawsuits and unending litigation, they should know from history such threats only strengthen resistance and invite allies. And our history further teaches that those seeking religious freedom eventually secure the blessings of that liberty.
James Oakes, senior warden of Truro Church in Fairfax, is vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia.