Va. Supreme Court rules for Episcopal denomination in property dispute

By Michelle Boorstein Virginia’s Supreme Court struck a blow to Anglican conservatives Thursday, ruling against nine congregations who split from … Continued

By Michelle Boorstein

Virginia’s Supreme Court struck a blow to Anglican conservatives Thursday, ruling against nine congregations who split from the Episcopal Church after it installed an openly gay bishop.

At issue are tens of millions of dollars of church property and symbolic momentum for dueling movements in the Anglican Communion.

The unanimous decision by the five-judge panel dismissing a lower court ruling that favored conservatives is not likely to end the dispute for the nine church properties. The panel simply found that a Civil War-era law governing how property is divided when churches split was wrongly applied to the current dispute. The panel sent the parties back to Fairfax County Circuit Court for a second, parallel case that focuses on who owns the properties, which is expected to be more complex and messy.

Although the legal issues were particular to Virginia, the case has been closely watched by Anglicans worldwide and other faith groups battling over how to interpret Scripture. The Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, has been at odds for decades over everything from the ordination of women to the concept of salvation to more recent disputes about the rights of gays and lesbians to become clergy and marry. Conservatives’ push to separate revved up after church leaders voted in 2003 to ordain Gene Robinson, an openly gay New Hampshire priest, as bishop.

Several key leaders of the conservative Anglican movement are based in Northern Virginia, where the land dispute has been emotionally intense. Since the nine congregations — and a handful of others — voted in late 2006 and early 2007 to leave the Episcopal Church, families and friends have been divided, there have been threats of trespass arrest, and special worship sessions related to the many court dates, including fasting leading up to Thursday’s decision. Some Episcopal clergy keep their offices in Starbucks as they await the end of this three-year-old, multimillion-dollar case.

Even the language is loaded, as both sides insist the other “left,” or abandoned true Anglicanism.

“We continue to be confident in our legal position as we move forward and will remain steadfast in our effort to defend the historic Christian faith,” Jim Oakes, chairman of the umbrella organization of local Anglican congregations, said Thursday. “Ultimately, we know that the Lord is in control and our congregations will continue to put our trust in Him, not in secular courts or buildings.”

In four of the churches, small groups of Episcopalians remained together and have been meeting for years in other churches as they wait for the case to be resolved, hoping to get back into the buildings. Mike Pipkin, priest-in-charge of The Falls Church, said Thursday that the ruling makes his congregants feel that they are “one step closer to coming home.”

Asked whether the dispute was worth the emotion and about $3.5 million paid by the Virginia Diocese alone (the national church is also a party), he said: “We want to worship in our historic home, it’s a holy place for us. Children were baptized there, parents buried.” The 175-person congregation, which now meets in a Presbyterian church across the street, planned a healing worship service for Thursday night. Pipkin said he planned to call the rector of the Anglican congregation who worships in the 800-seat Falls Church.

The Anglican conservative movement in North America is small but growing, with about 100,000 members. The Episcopal Church, like much of organized religion, has been losing members in recent decades and has about 2.2 million members

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  • slappygilmore

    I went to Truro for a few years until this split up. This CANA group is so anti-gay, I stopped going there. I have no say in it (or really don’t care), but I was taught at that church that everything and everyone is loved no matter what. Looks like the priorities got mixed up. I enjoyed that church until the controversies. I go elsewhere, now, but I still follow up and read this stuff. Is it about the gays or the MONEY. Rev. Mimms never had any true direction in this. He lost my faith for that place, and he probably doesn’t even care.

  • whatup

    Sanya2135 wrote: used to attend that church. The breakaway sect took with it the most intolerant, bigoted, petty, and narrowminded people who never met an excuse to hate in the name of Jesus that they didn’t like.The thought of that beautiful, historic building being in the hands of people with so much hate (and with such a lack of understanding of what the New Testament actually commands people to do) made me sick.*********Guess you missed the part in the NT about judge not least you be judged huh? Do you see how hypocritical your post is?

  • AlaskaMelts

    MIL1 said: “TEC going to court against its own congregations or parts of congregations is proof only that they no longer consider Christ’s words about dropping everything and reconciling before offering sacrifice at the the altar.”You have it all twisted. TEC is not going to court against its own congregation. It’s going to court to reclaim its property for Episcopalians — the people who were forced out when the majority of the congregation voted to LEAVE the Episcopal Church. To imply that the Episcopal Church should stand meekly by while their property is confiscated is ridiculous. What a great strategy for CANA (and you) — passively/aggressively take over Church property, leave the Episcopal Church, and then complain that the Episcopal Church is putting up a fight.Why didn’t CANA reconcile on the altar before leaving the Church?

  • DoggieDoo

    If the Episcopal Church gets those buildings back, it will be interesting to see if they can continue to keep them open. Projections show that if present trends in Average Sunday Attendance continue, the Episcopal will have one member in 2050!

  • slappygilmore

    That’s easy, ALASKA, poor planning and overreaction.

  • checkered1

    Maybe these hatemongers can have their hatemongering African bishops build them churches. Oh wait, the whole idea was for the homophobic African bishops to get money FROM the North American hatermongers. Bwaaahaaaaaa

  • JSDickey

    I was raised as an Episcopalian and once attended Truro’s service. Frankly, I found it too evangelical for my tastes and never returned. There are two issues here. One is the ability of an individual congregation to separate itself from the doctrines of its nominal superior, let us call it a form of Reformation. While we may disagree with Truro’s reasons for wanting to separate, the concept of Reformation is in the blood of the Episcopal church — or once was. In the 60s the Episcopal church decided to fall back under the sway of anglo-Catholicism (high-church)and has remained under that sway in litergy, etc. ever since. Alas for the Episcopal (high)Church, the Catholic Church, which seemed at the time to be heading in the direction of greater openness, has since shut the door — particularly on the issue of gays. This has led churches like Truro to be closer to Catholic doctrine in many respects (gays) but opposed to crypto-Catholicisms in liturgy; they need to become crypto-Baptists in Fairfax. The rest of the Episcopal Church conducts services which look like Catholic services but preach one-world (Unitarian? — I’m getting out of my depth here) everybody is good philosophies. What a mess. Who’d be an Episcopalian these days?But this argument in Virginia is not about doctrine, litergy or the future of the Church. It about property, so the law will decide. Too bad that we don’t have a Law of 1905 like France which solved this sort of problem.

  • InTheMiddle

    The Episcopal Church is no longer a Christian denomination. It has denied the authority of Scripture and become effectively an arm of the liberal Democratic party. By the definition of some of these commentators, the Bible is “homophobic” because it clearly identifies homosexual activity as sin. But wait, the Bible also declares that God loves sinner. In fact, He loves sinners so much He sent His Son to die for their sin. Is it possible that God hates sin, but loves sinners? Is it possible God will judge those who contradict his Word and teach that sin is in fact God’s intention for men and women?Or are you going to stand on the judgment day before God and declare: “Your Word is wrong, and You are a homophobe!” Wonder how that will work out for you.

  • rogernebel

    The opinion is on the Virginia Supreme Court website.In summary,1. No division in the Anglican Communion, the overarching Religious Society:”Accordingly, we conclude that the circuit court erred in its holding that there was a division in the Anglican Communion for purposes of the application of Code § 57-9(A) in these cases.”2. A division in TEC and the Diocese did occur:”Accordingly, we hold that the circuit court did not err in finding that a “division” had occurred in the Diocese and TEC within the meaning of Code § 57-9(A).”3. An attachment did occur in the past between the break aways and TEC/Diocese of Virginia (required by the 57-9 Virginia law):”Accordingly, we agree that for purposes of Code § 57-9(A), the CANA Congregations established that they were previously “attached” to TEC and the Diocese.”4. CANA is no longer a branch of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, thus 57-9 does not apply. I think this means that while CANA was originally a branch of the Nigerian church, they changed their charter and are now standalone with no affiliation to the Anglican Church at all. “CANA is not a “branch” of either TEC or the Diocese to which the congregations could vote to join following the “division” in TEC and the Diocese as contemplated by Code § 57-9(A).”5. To comply with 57-9, CANA (or the breakaway churches on their own) would have to join as a new branch of the Anglican Communion from which TEC and the Diocese of Virginia are branches:”We further conclude that a proper construction of Code § 57-9(A) requires a petitioning congregation to establish both that there has been a division within the church or religious society to which it is attached and that subsequent to that division the congregation seeks to affiliate with a branch derived from that same church or religious society.” 6. The issue of who owns the properties and the trust funds are remanded back to the circuit court. So it’s still not settled and further circuit court proceedings are likely.

  • PrimrosePath

    I’ve been an ex-Episcopalian for two years now, because if it seemed that if my tendencies were Unitarian, Presbyterian, Orthodox or Catholic I should actually become one and be honest about it. Increasingly, the only thing that sets Episcopalianism from these other fine options is some very fine real estate; so this dispute is actually of fundamental importance.

  • mil1

    “TEC is….going to court to reclaim its property..” maybe that is the problem. Shouldn’t TEC want people and their souls versus property? The minority want the majority to convert?And although as an American I value property, why as Christian should I value it above reconciliation with my brother/sister? This is why I say both are losers—valuing property about people isn’t what Christ was/is about.Perhaps I didn’t state it clearly enough–CANA isn’t “winning” because they can hold the physical property. TEC isn’t “winning” if they get it back. Both lose–they lost each other and they are losing Christ. I laid more blame on TEC because they claim they are the legitimate bishops of the church i.e. the leaders and rightfully hold more blame because of this status. CANA says they can’t be part of TEC because they view TEC as sinful; TEC says it must be diverse and universal and therefore neither can be reconciled to the other. Christ said you must try reconciliation; this wasn’t tried. But then he also said (through St Paul) if reconciliation you must walk away–not take the property and run (this applies to both sides).The court suit is about who owns the property–congregation or central church. Each group see this as who owns Christ–and guess what? Neither does.

  • avaltec

    My wife and I are current members of TEC and have been for over 30 years. The personal issues between our faith with God and moral values did not affect our decision to stay. It was the way the CANA leaders (not members) decided to take the property that made the decision for us to stay. Those individuals who are giving the readers personal details of the experiences they had with CANA leaders are true and should not be taken as passing judgement on a Church or its members. We know and speak to many existing CANA members and they dont understand what or how these things happened, but they recognize it. The CANA leaders strategically took over the properties and have no intentions in reconciling.We have tried to reconcile with them so we can preach on the property in one of the many prayer rooms and they wont allow us because of the CANA leaders (not its members). Past members of a church leave for very good reasons, and when they leave they keep the building in tact for others to use. They don’t take a brick with them, the pulpit, the cross or the property.Everyone is correct when they say your faith in God is not based on a property or material goods. We at the TEC feel the same way and for that reason we have stayed with the Old TEC and not reconciled and become members of CANA so we can have access to the property. We accept that we preach in a borrowed room, with a Church that is accepting of its Christian members.I speak on my behalf and not of the TEC leaders or members.

  • bobbarnes

    I’m going to need more popcorn.

  • GiveMeThat

    The Episcopal denomination is simply evil. Satan doesn’t have a tail, pitchfork and horns. No he is too smart for that. Rather, he wears a bishop mitre and tosses true Christians out of their churches

  • jmaynard2

    @ GivemethatNo the Episcopal Church is not evil. Your statement shows your true spirit. The National Church is the owner of all church property and has been for over 200 years…it is as simple as that.

  • ashdaleuf

    Can you give more information on this? I’d heard that this church owned the land before the episcopal church was even founded in the US. This (Anglican) church has a very large congregation and it’s sad that no one is listening for their interests.

  • annelanewitt

    ASHDALEUF, when any parishes that preexisted The Episcopal Church chose to become a part of TEC and their dioceses, they agreed to be bound by the constitution and canons of TEC. This means that they agreed that their real property is held in trust for the diocese and TEC, which is why the real property cannot be taken despite the founding date of the parish. I hope that helps. It’s straight from my class in the canon law of TEC at seminary.

  • Sanya2135

    I used to attend that church. The breakaway sect took with it the most intolerant, bigoted, petty, and narrowminded people who never met an excuse to hate in the name of Jesus that they didn’t like.The thought of that beautiful, historic building being in the hands of people with so much hate (and with such a lack of understanding of what the New Testament actually commands people to do) made me sick.

  • hoos3014

    Score one for the good guys!How they ever found a judge to rule the other way is beyond me.

  • WmarkW

    The Episcopal Church’s problem is that its members became too educated to believe superstitious nonsense. So the semi-Fundamentalists are breaking away from the semi-Unitarians.

  • austinrl

    The headline is incorrect. The Virginia Supreme Court reversed the Circuit Court ruling, but it also remanded the case back to the Circuit Court for further consideration. The bottom line is we’re at least two years and millions of dollars from a final resolution of the case.

  • AlaskaMelts

    I was confirmed as a 12 year old at Falls Church Episcopal. I agree with a poster that Rev. Yates has built a large and vibrant community. But I wonder how many members of the current congregation were actually raised as Episcopalians. I am inclined to believe that they joined this “CANA” group because of Rev. Yates and his political bent and biblical interpretations.Personally, I’d be happy if the Episcopalians could regain their Historic Church and if Yates and Company could continue on in the building next door (the new main church). It would be a good test to see which group was more tolerant. Tolerance is good. I believe Jesus may have said a few things about that.

  • thebobbob

    The Church is a Corporation that sells a fraudulent product, an afterlife in heaven. The worst part is that the taxpayer subsidizes the fraud.There’s no doubt how the 5-4 pro-corporate, Catholic majority will rule on this one.

  • CradleEpiscopalian

    I find it interesting that so many people here are placing the blame for not reconciling on TEC when it was, in fact, CANA that chose to leave and continually distances itself. When you leave a church you LEAVE it … you don’t get to then take the property with you. Would it be nice if we could all focus on the larger, more important issues (such as hunger, homelessness, domestic violence …) instead of this property dispute? Yes, and the members of CANA should have thought of that before they essentially STOLE millions of dollars in property and trust from TEC. TEC has every right to fight to get its property back. Members of CANA have every right to leave TEC and plant new churches … with an emphasis on LEAVE.