Virginia Split Goes to Court Today

In what promises to be the first of many such days, a court battle over church property begins today in Virginia. According to a report in the Washington Times, representatives of the Diocese of Virginia and the Anglican District of Virginia will face off before Fairfax County District Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows.

There are eleven congregations, their clergy and lay leaders named in the suit, not to mention the Bishop, Diocese and lay and ordained leaders named in the response. According to Robert W. Prichard, Kinsolving Professor of Christianity in America at the Virginia Theological Seminary, this is the largest lawsuit in terms of the number of individuals named and the fair market value of the properties involved in the history of the Episcopal Church.

The departing congregations assert that, when they voted to leave the Episcopal Church, they were following the recommendations of a special commission that attempted to reconcile competing property claims within the boundaries of diocesan constitution and canons. The Chancellor of the Anglican District of Virginia, Mary McReynolds says that the Diocese made an about face alleging that they gave into pressure from the Episcopal Church headquarters.

The diocese says that the commission report was received but not formally accepted by the Diocesan Council (convention) or standing committee. On November 16, 2006 Patrick Getlein, Secretary of the Diocese said, through a news release from the Diocese of Virginia, “There is no approved protocol.” The assessment was reiterated by Col. Jean D. Reed, president of the Standing Committee.

Bishop Lee has said that the actions of the parishes including the votes to separate the congregations from the Diocese rendered the negotiations, including the proposals of the report, moot and necessitated the court actions. On January 18, 2007 he wrote that “the votes to separate from The Episcopal Church negated all the work we had done in good faith over the years to accommodate the views of the leadership of these churches and focused our attention on the only two remaining factors: the status of clergy and the status of property.”

One of complaints by the Anglican District against the Diocese of Virginia is that the 21 clergy who withdrew from the Episcopal Church to become clergy in the Church of Nigeria were subsequently inhibited by Bishop Lee and so cannot function within the Episcopal Church.

In an op-ed piece published yesterday in the Richmond Times, James Oates, senior warden of the Truro Church CANA, and vice-chairman of the Anglican District, styles the fight in terms of religious freedom. “Whoever thought American citizens would have to fight for their own religious freedom against an American church in the land of religious freedom?” he wrote.

In the January 18, 2007, letter to the Diocese, Bishop James L. Lee wrote “In the structure of the Episcopal Church, individuals may come and go but parishes continue.” He stated that the votes in the eleven churches “left remaining (the) Episcopal congregations in those places without vestries, without clergy and without their churches, whether the remaining congregations numbered one or 100 souls. The spiritual abandonment of their Episcopal brothers and sisters of the past, the present and the future, is perhaps the greatest offense for which there is no redress under our tradition.”

According to the Washington Times report, Professor Prichard would not guess how these suits would turn out saying “I’ve got better sense than that.”

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