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This week, a judge in Faifax County, Va., will hear the last round of arguments in a church property case that has drawn national attention. As a member of Truro Church, one of the parishes being sued by The Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia, I’d like to reflect on how we got to this point and what we could be doing with the money that has been spent on legal fees.
This journey started two years ago, when ten congregations, formerly part of the Diocese, voted to sever our ties with The Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a new denomination affiliated with the Anglican Church of Nigeria, thereby remaining with the worldwide Anglican Communion. These congregations are now part of the Anglican District of Virginia, which has grown to include 23 Virginia congregations in its short history.
We made that decision soberly and prayerfully, based on actions of The Episcopal Church to walk away from what we see as the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Our decision was not about issues of lifestyle or minor differences of opinion. We simply could not continue to be led by a church body that would not affirm the authority of Scripture.
Throughout the separation process, we did everything possible to work with the Episcopal leadership. We had dozens of meetings with the Bishop of Virginia, who appointed a special committee to help departing congregations find an amicable way forward. That committee unanimously endorsed a “Protocol” for departing congregations that provided for a “period of reflection” before any votes to disaffiliate, and then for negotiations over the ownership of property. Under the Protocol, those negotiations were to be guided by principles of “Christian charity.”
After the congregational votes, we signed a “standstill” agreement with the Diocese that we would not undertake any hostile actions against each other, and instead negotiate in mutual good faith.
We were grieved when the Diocese abruptly broke off negotiations with us in January 2007 and sued us in secular court, joined by the national church. Since that time, the Diocese and The Episcopal Church have spent millions on legal fees, just as we have done to defend ourselves.
Over the past year, the court has issued rulings that strongly support the efforts of our congregations: yes, we properly invoked the Virginia Division Statute, a law which states that majority rule should apply when a division in a denomination or diocese results in the disaffiliation of an organized group of congregations, and yes, the statute is constitutional.
In a significant move that has been largely underreported, the Diocese actually agreed that it would not contest the fairness and validity of our votes to separate from The Episcopal Church.
In addition, two ADV parishes that were sued that meet in local schools and have no real property at stake were finally released from the lawsuit after a reasonable settlement was worked out.
But there is still more to come. Despite their numerous setbacks in court, the Diocese and The Episcopal Church seem intent on continuing the costly litigation and have already promised an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court in spite of repeated calls from us to return to the negotiating table. It is still unclear to us why they are pursuing adversarial tactics when so many alternatives have been available.
We could do so much more for our communities without this costly distraction. I was recently told that the amount of money we and the Diocese have spent on this litigation could have funded as many as 75 new churches. By the time the Diocese and national church get done appealing, that number will rise.
We can only hope and pray that Episcopal leaders will realize that the high cost of this litigation has not done one thing to further the mission of God’s church in any way.
To be sure, there are large questions at issue here. Do congregations have a say in what happens to property that they and their ancestors have bought, paid for, and maintained over the years? What recourse do members of a local church have when their national church works against the Biblical beliefs that are foundational to their faith? Reasonable people can differ about those answers, and we understand that. Secular courts, however, are the last place that Christians should want to resolve them.
Jim Oakes is the vice-chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, which includes the congregations being sued in court and 12 other churches. He is a member of Truro Church.