Breakaway Va. Anglican Congregation to Appeal Property Case to Supreme Court
(Photo: Matt Rhodes/The Falls Church Episcopal)The historic sanctuary of The Falls Church. A continuing congregation of The Episcopal Church worships on Easter Sunday, 2012.
A Virginia Anglican congregation that traces its founding to the colonial era has announced that they will file an appeal over a property case to the United States Supreme Court.
The Falls Church Anglican stated earlier this week their intention to file an appeal over whether they or the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia controls the historic Falls Church property. “Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we achieved a broad degree of unity in our decision to bring these matters forward to the Supreme Court, believing that God has uniquely positioned TFCA to do so,” reads an email sent out to parishioners on Monday.
“We are advised that the facts of our case are strong and that we are uniquely placed at this time – and perhaps for many years to come – to raise these issues to the U.S. Supreme Court. And each of us wanted to be good stewards of the resources God has given us.”
Voting to Leave
The saga for Falls Church began in 2003 when The Episcopal Church ordained its first openly gay bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.
The Falls Church was one of eleven congregations in the Virginia Diocese to vote overwhelmingly to leave the denomination over the ordination and overall theological differences. These votes by various Episcopal congregations in Virginia took place in 2006 and 2007, with some of the church properties connected to these breakaways having been first established in the 18th century.
Upon leaving The Episcopal Church, Falls Church Anglican joined the more conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).
The minority of congregants at the congregation who wanted to remain with The Episcopal Church formed The Falls Church Episcopal.
Not long after leaving, The Episcopal Church took the eleven congregations to court over who rightfully owned the church properties. Due to certain technicalities, four of the eleven breakaway congregations had their disputes settled out of court not long after the initial suit.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows originally ruled in favor of the departing churches in 2008, but his decision was overturned by the Virginia State Supreme Court. In January 2012, Bellows ruled against the departing congregations, including the Falls Church Anglican, in the property suit. Last October, Falls Church Anglican appealed the decision regarding its property and church funds, both of which were in dispute.
In April, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Diocese of Virginia, with ownership of the funds tied to the property still to be decided.
With the most recent court loss, the historic church property is presently used and overseen by the Falls Church Episcopal, a “continuing congregation” of the liberal mainline denomination.
Since leaving the property, Falls Church Anglican uses two nearby facilities: Columbia Baptist Chapel and Bishop O’Connell High School, a Catholic private school.
In a statement, Episcopal Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon S. Johnston expressed disappointment at the news of the Supreme Court appeal. “It is unfortunate that this litigation continues,” said Johnston in remarks posted on the Episcopal News Service site on Tuesday. “Nonetheless, we remain committed to focusing our energies on the work of the church. The Falls Church Episcopal continues to grow and thrive, and we all look forward to a time when we can put these issues behind us for good.”
The Falls Church Anglican has until Thursday, Sept. 12, to file its petition. Once filed, the Supreme Court will decide whether or not to hear it sometime later this year or early 2014.
One of the ironies in the current dispute taking up the time of expensive lawyers in the U.S. is that, in the Falls Church episode, the dissidents who moved out call themselves ‘The Falls Church Anglicans’ (allied with the Anglican Church of Nigeria), while the remaining loyal Episcopalian congregation are more generally still known as ‘The Falls Church Episcopalians’.
Naturally, the Episcopalian congregation has remained hopeful that – having already won the approval of the Virginia State Supreme Court – their property will remain the property of TEC, their national Church. However, the schismatics, not content with the verdict of the Virginia Supreme Court, have applied to have their ruling overturned by the United States Supreme Court. One wonders how long it will take the schismatics – and their Nigerian sponsors (from the GAFCON-allied conservative group in the Global South) – to realise that one cannot walk away from The Episcopal Church and expect to alienate the property of the parent Church. Schism seldom brings rewards.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand