The True Cost of Episcopal Property Battles

This week, a judge in Faifax County, Va., will hear the last round of arguments in a church property case … Continued

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.

About

  • sparrow4

    sorry- no sympathy from me. If you can’t find it in your hearts to accept fellow human beings as entitled to good, loving relationships with their soul mates- regardless of sex- you aren’t very christian. Your interpretation of scripture is stuck in the past. Living scripture grows and deals with the challenges of the times. The Jesus you believe in is small-minded, unloving and vindictive. and it reflects in how you conduct your business.You are hypocritical- You want inequality for homosexuals and yet you expect equality for yourselves and tax privileges for your church. You had recourse- you could have shown yourselves to be open-minded, true Americans who believe in and support the constitution and bill of rights. You expect to benefit from these documents, as well as our tax laws, yet you would deny equality to others. You want to be able to force religious mores into politics and laws but you cry foul on using “secular” courts. On top of that, you decided to go under the umbrella of a repressively fundamentalist church from Nigeria. What “christian charity” do you refer to? Certainly it has no relation to compassion or equality.Quit whining- you put yourselves in this position. You gave an ultimatum to the national church and now you don’t like living with it. what goes around, comes around.

  • whall42

    As an immigrant to the Episcopal Church a couple of decades ago, one of the things I came to love about it was the central concept of the three-legged stool. The Church is the seat of the stool, where the Holy Spirit perches. The three equal length legs are Scripture, Tradition, and Human Reason (all God-given). Having witnessed the struggles of the Church relative to human sexuality (and, to some extent, struggled myself), I have concluded that dissident segments of my church are laboring to redefine our historic polity, to redefine Anglicanism, to accommodate personal distaste or discomfort. As I have been saddened to watch some politicians struggle to redefine my country’s historic model of governance to suite temporary issues, it also saddens me to witness a small part of the worldwide Anglican communion attempt to rewrite our historic Anglican model for living out Christ’s Great Commission through the centuries.

  • Paganplace

    “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.”OK. Since Scripture doesn’t actually mention same-sex *female* couples, and you see a desperate need to condemn the boys, well, as you will. Now let’s see what you’ve won…Oh, right. That might take a while.

  • FtLauderdale

    The Episcopal church traces the authority of its leadership back to its beginning, and, unlike the Baptists, all individual churches exist because they were established by the denomination.Because of this, an individual Episcopal church is not a free agent. Further, individual churches have always known this.Yes, a great deal of your money has gone to support your church, but much has also been spent much wider afield. Do you also sue to recoup the donations sent to missions in Africa and other third world countries? Do you sue to force repayment for the food and medicines you have provided around the world?If not, why not?Sorry — you may leave as individuals, but the church property isn’t yours to take. It only rested with you in stewardship — a stewardship which was overseen by the denomination.You deserve thanks for your generosity, but as you’ve always been aware, you never had legal ownership of the property.

  • DannyK14

    Look, you guys chose to become schismatics and tear apart the Anglican church, and you decided to keep a bunch of church property when you did it. No point in playing the victim now.

  • baynardsa

    Mr. Oakes has an odd notion of ownership. He asks: ” Do congregations have a say in what happens to property that they and their ancestors have bought, paid for, and maintained over the years? ” In fact, the membership of a number of these schismatic parishes comprises large numbers of non-Episcopalians. One such Truro member I met last year was raised a Presbyterian, and simply started attending Truro and liked it. He has never taken any instruction on the doctrines of the Episcopal Church. So he, and others like him, voted to withdraw from the Episcopal church. Where does Mr. Oakes get the idea that these are people whose “…ancestors bought, paid for… ” the church property they now wish to claim?The whole affair is so oddly unChristian: the supporters of Bishop Robinson, who just had to cram their views down the throats of the whole church (I agree with them, btw, but do not believe it was necessary to be so pushy), and the traditionalists, who have chosen to ally themselves with foreign prelates of questionable integrity. How sad a fate for the Episcopal Church, which has always been a beacon of tolerance and reason.

  • sparrow4

    why do you say pushy? How long should they wait to promote a man who to all intents and purposes fulfilled his job well? Maybe those of the Church who have a conscience realized now is the time to take a stand because if they don’t practice what Christ preached, who will?

  • Rob-Roy

    Whall42, Hooker’s three legs of the stool were NOT equal length. If you read the original text, it was clear that scripture trumped the other two. Then tradition. Lastly, reason was judged least trustworthy. And Hooker’s reason was not the superficial straw men arguments and feelings put forth by Mr Robinson and Ms Schori. Rather, it was reason honed by a lifetime study of scripture in a setting steeped in tradition. Like it or not, the Episcopal church in Virginia must abide by the laws of Virginia, including the separation law 57-9. The point of this law was help work out amicable separation. But Ms Schori wants none of that. What I find incredible is that people don’t see the folly of the denomination’s my way or the highway approach. First off, it could not possibly make for worse PR: “Goliath Wants to Evict Local Parishioners from Their Churches.” Who wants to give to or join such a church? Second, the TEC is the fastest declining denomination and, in particular, the diocese is rapid decline. They hardly need more buildings. One can’t just level the buildings either and make office buildings on the expensive property. They will become albatrosses if the diocese eventually wins. The churches would have probably recompensed the diocese handedly if Peter Lee had the backbone to stand up to Ms Schori and told her to butt out of diocesan business. Stupid is as stupid does.

  • Rob-Roy

    “Look, you guys chose to become schismatics and tear apart the Anglican church, and you decided to keep a bunch of church property when you did it.”If one is going to lie, lie big. 180 degrees backwards. It was the American church that was told their actions would “tear the fabric or the Anglican Communion”. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop at the time even signed on to this and preceded to come back and participate in the consecration. (Not too hypocritical!) Ms Schori is always saying, “it’s just a tiny, noisy minority.” The realigning churches were negotiating in good faith (meaning they probably would have compensated the diocese), but Ms Schori put the kibosh on that. The path she has chosen is insane. The Episcopal denomination was already the fastest declining. So let us take on incredibly costly litigation that will provide sustained terrible PR for the organization.

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