Episcopal Church, Virginia prevail as court refuses to revise decision

Breakaway congregations given deadline for property return

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Mar 2, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Seven breakaway congregations have been ordered by a judge to return control of church property to the Diocese of Virginia by April 30.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows set that date after he refused March 1 to reconsider, as requested by the congregations, the part of his Jan. 10 opinion in which he said that some personal property, including monetary gifts, given to the congregations prior to January 31, 2007, belongs to the diocese.

Bellows’ actions were meant to implement his Jan. 10 opinion that the diocese and the Episcopal Church “have a contractual and proprietary interest in the property of these Episcopal churches” for use in the church’s mission and ministry. He added that while congregations “had an absolute right to depart from [the Episcopal Church] and the diocese, they had no right to take these seven Episcopal churches with them.”

The real property includes seven church buildings and a significant number of other parcels. The personal property includes both tangible items, such as chalices, prayer books and crosses, and intangibles, including the funds on hand, the diocese said in a press release  issued close to midnight on March 1.

Bellows ordered that the specific inventory of items be based on what he called the “ownership determination date,” which he set at either Jan. 31, 2007, or Feb. 1, 2007, the dates the diocese formally filed for legal action to recover its property.

Bellows issued his order the day after he held a hearing on the issues. The text of the order is here.

The ruling allows the CANA congregations to retain some restricted funds over which they have no discretion and that do not benefit the local congregation, the diocese or the Episcopal Church, according to the release. The parties have until March 30 to determine the disposition of that money. Where the parties do not agree, the court will decide.

The majority of members and clergy of the seven parishes left to form congregations of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), which the Anglican Province of Nigeria began in 2005. The departing members of those congregations then filed claims to parish property under Virginia law.

“We hope that this will mark the end of this lengthy litigation,” Virginia Bishop Shannon S. Johnston said in the diocesan release. “By closing this chapter, both the diocese and the CANA congregations have the freedom to focus our energies on the mission and ministries of our respective congregations, and even what we might be able to do together for people and a world in need of the gospel’s work.”

Johnston added that the diocese has begun an initiative known as Dayspring, which he said was “an integrated effort to discern and implement a comprehensive vision for our congregations and properties affected by this litigation.”

Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the diocese, called the court’s order “a major milestone in this effort,” and added that the diocese “respect[s] fully the CANA congregations’ right to pursue an appeal, and we are in discussions with them as they face significant issues of discernment and transition in their path forward.”

Jim Oakes, spokesperson for the seven congregations, said in a press release that “while our congregations will comply with the final order, we are saddened that the Circuit Court did not accept the motion for partial reconsideration and we continue to believe that, as a matter of religious liberty, it is the right of donors to restrict the use of their own gifts to the church of their choice.”

The congregations are “prayerfully considering their legal options,” the release said.

“We have always known that a church is not just its buildings, but its people and the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ being proclaimed and lived. We look forward to God leading us in the days ahead,” the Rev. John Yates, rector of the breakaway portion of the Falls Church, said in the same release.

Yates had told his congregation on Feb. 22 that “our intention is to move all staff offices to a convenient nearby office building later this spring, and to shift our Sunday worship services to nearby locations” after the deadline set by Bellows. Some of those worship locations have been determined, others have not, he said.

Yates also said that the congregation “may very well be led” to change its name from Falls Church Anglican. It has already moved its website to http://www.tfcanglican.org/ from http://www.thefallschurch.org. The Episcopal congregation is located here on the web.

Bellow’s Jan. 10 opinion stemmed from a June 2010 decision of the Virginia Supreme Court that found he erred in an earlier ruling when he said that the breakaway congregations involved in the cases were entitled to retain all the parishes’ real and personal property when they left the Episcopal Church and joined another denomination.

In June 2010, the Supreme Court held that although disagreements had caused “a division” within the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia, the breakaway congregations had affiliated with a church that was not a branch of either the Episcopal Church or the diocese. Such an affiliation is required, the court said, for Virginia’s one-of-a-kind “Division Statute” (Section 57-9(A)) to apply, as the breakaway congregations claimed.

The Supreme Court returned the cases to the lower court for further proceedings to resolve the property claims of the Episcopal Church and the diocese “under principles of real property and contract law.” Bellows held a trial that lasted 22 days stretched over April, May and June 2011, and included testimony by 60 witnesses. He wrote that he also reviewed thousands of pages of post-trial briefs.

In coming to his Jan. 10 opinion, Bellows reviewed Virginia statutes governing church property, the deeds to the real property of the churches, the governing rules of the diocese and the Episcopal Church, and the historic relationship between the parishes and the larger church.

He concluded state statutes support a finding that a local congregation is obligated to comply with the “laws, rules and ecclesiastical polity” of the denomination with regard to property and that the constitution and canons of both the diocese and the Episcopal Church “demonstrate pervasive dominion, management, and control over local church property, in a manner normally associated with ownership, title, and possession.” Bellows said the deeds in question make clear that the property “cannot be removed from the denomination without the larger church’s consent.”

More information about the cases, including all court filings, is available here.

The case originally involved members of 11 congregations of the Virginia diocese but the diocese settled with four of the congregations in the intervening years, including Potomac Falls Church in Potomac Falls and Christ the Redeemer Church in Chantilly, neither of which held any real property.

The diocese agreed to lease the property of Church of the Word in Prince William County to the breakaway members for five years. The Oatlands congregation announced the purchase of a tract of land where they are building a new church. Church of Our Saviour in Loudon County retained the property after paying the diocese $1.95 million, according to Burt. Both congregations agreed to disaffiliate from CANA for a period of time.

The remaining churches are Truro Church, The Church at the Falls – The Falls Church (Arlington), Church of the Apostles (Fairfax), Church of the Epiphany (Fairfax), St. Margaret’s Church (Woodbridge), St. Paul’s Church (Haymarket) and St. Stephen’s Church (Northumberland County).

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (11)

  1. Fred Freeling says:

    What will the Episcopal Church do with all those empty buildings? Will they sit as shrines to the will of man?

    1. James Pirrung says:

      Regardless of theology, TEC owns the buildings, not the ACNA or any other CANA denomination. It’s one thing to create a different structure on theological tenets; it’s another to illegally commandeer property because of those differences. Let’s say one local bank likes Citi better than PNC, their current hierarchy. Yet, it cannot legally confiscate PNC’s building in order to become a Citi branch. Citi has to build a new building.

    2. Dick Reynolds says:

      Undoubtedly they will sell the property to growing congregations of the charismatic persuasion

  2. John Flynn says:

    When our church recovered its property from the CANA group, we struggled. They had left us with a huge mortgage, no vestry or permanent Rector. Here we are five years later growing steadily in faith and numbers, to the point that I believe we now have a larger congregation than the breakaways.
    It was amazing how many people were willing to take over the tasks of running the parish. The Virginia churches can do no less. Keep the Faith.

  3. Chantal Andrews says:

    This new format of ENS makes it difficult to forward or share articles of particular interest.
    It was easy to forward to the entire congregation, sending the article to my e-mail address with Bcc to the group. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks.
    Chantal Andrews
    All Soul’s Episcopal Church
    Ridgecrest, CA

    1. Matthew Davies says:

      Dear Chantal, At the top of every article, directly underneath the byline, is a + icon next to the word “Share”. This button enables readers to share our content via an email pop up, through various email clients, or on social media networks. I hope this helps.

  4. Michael Neal says:

    The Church is not a building. Let them have the buildings. God is purging HIS church, those who believe in the authority of scripture and those who do not. TEC will keep going to the ways of the world, CANA and 80% of the rest of the Anglican Communion will follow Christ. So mote it be…….

  5. R.A. Garcia says:

    WHEN THE TEC or PECUSA TOOK OVER THE ENGLISH CHURCHES IN AMERICA, THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND HAD PROPRIETARY RIGHTS OVER ALL THOSE STRUCTURES, MONIES, RELICS, LANDS et al.? Please do notice, that some of these churches were built prior to the establishment of the USA.

    1. Tony Green says:

      While not a lawyer, I believe the governing principle has been alluded to by R.A. Garcia, “When the TEC or the PECUSA took over.” Some also suggest the precedent of Crown patents, contacts, and feds were preempted by the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the subsequent precedent set within state and National Conditional law.

  6. Tony Green says:

    P.S., contracts and deeds.

  7. Philip Jones, Reston VA says:

    Of the 11 churches that elected to “go to Nigeria”:

    Two have no real property, so there is no issue.

    Two settled with the diocese before 2012. One of these left CANA and has accepted the oversight of Bishop Johnston (VA).

    St Stephen’s, St Margaret’s and Epiphany amicably returned their property to continuing congregations of Episcopalians.

    Truro reached two-year lease back agreement with the diocese. They conveyed deeds etc to the diocese. The friendship developed between Truro’s rector and Bp. Johnston may lead to a more positive outcome in the future.

    The Falls Church agreed to return its property to the Episcopal Falls Church. Then they reneged on the agreement. After the April 27 hearing before Judge Bellows, the judge told them to vacate by April 30. The diocese graciously is allowing them until May 15 to return the property.

    And then there was one — The Church of the Apostles. The Church of the Apostles publishes “prophecies” received by members in their weekly newsletter. These appear to be represented as having the authority of scripture. Their building is actually an industrial facility that is suitable for a Costco or a tire warehouse. There is no continuing congregation.

    Has the diocese suffered financially from the loss of these congregations? No. These churches haven’t contributed to the diocese in years. Even so they showed up at council meetings and were very vocal in opposing actions desired by Episcopal congregations. No church can grow in the midst of conflict. The Diocese of Virginia has a chance for a new beginning without the drag of schismatics and heretics. I give total credit to Bishop Shannon Johnston for managing this process in gracious pastoral manner. I wish I were as charitable as he is.

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