Falls Church Anglicans appeal to state Supreme Court

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jun 6, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] The last of seven breakaway congregations that had legal disputes with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church has sought permission to appeal a judge’s order that it return control of certain church property to the diocese.

The Falls Church Anglican Church, as the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) congregation is known, filed its appeal petition June 1.

It is contesting Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows’ March 1 order that it return to the diocese the parish’s real property, approximately $2.8 million contributed by its members prior to 2007, and most of its tangible personal property such as bibles, hymnals and furniture.

Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli also on June 1 filed a brief in support of the church’s request for review of the trial court’s treatment of donations. Cuccinelli says in the brief that he was entering the case “to protect the public interest in honoring the wishes of donors to charitable institutions.”

Bellows’ order was meant to enforce 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’ ruling allowed 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.

In May diocesan Secretary Henry D.W. Burt wrote to diocesan members expressing “disappointment” that the diocese had not been able to reach a final settlement with Falls Church Anglican and predicting that the congregation might seek to appeal. He noted that the other six CANA congregations had one by one agreed to return the church property, including personal property and Episcopal funds due the Diocese of Virginia, and to withdraw their appeal efforts. Burt outlined in his letter a schedule that anticipates the Virginia Supreme Court deciding whether to take the appeal in the fall.

In a press release issued the day of its appeal petition, Falls Church Anglican left the door open to negotiation, but placed the burden on the diocese for presenting what it called “an equitable out-of-court resolution.”

The Rev. Dr. John Yates II, rector of the Falls Church Anglican, told his congregation May 8 that in order to appeal the church had to deposit $2.8 million with the court. The money, which includes the disputed amount plus $122,400 of interest for nine months, will be held until the appeal is settled.

The state Supreme Court said in a June 2010 decision that Bellows erred in an earlier ruling when he said that the breakaway congregations involved in the cases were entitled under a Civil War-era statute to retain all the parishes’ real and personal property when they left the Episcopal Church and joined another denomination. The Supreme Court held that that statute did not apply. Bellows’ Jan. 10 order resolved the dispute in favor of the diocese and the Episcopal Church on grounds other than the statute.

Yates said the $2.8 million bond “has drained the specially designated accounts for all sorts of ministries and means that we are now basically in a week-to-week situation financially,” adding “we have some ministries on hold and have cut back in other areas during this period as we learn just what our expenses will be.”

Yates wrote that “over the next six months of transition, we have almost no resources and are dependent upon God to provide for our church.” He urged members to tithe and announced a campaign for them to increase their pledging.

The Anglican congregation vacated the Falls Church property on May 13 and is worshiping in a variety of locations. The continuing congregation, which is now known as Falls Church Episcopal returned to the church campus on May 26. The diocese is renting the Falls Church rectory to Yates at “a fair rent” for up to a year so that he can decide where to relocate his home, Burt said.

The rectory rental is one of what Burt called “other key side agreements with real and positive consequences for the people affected” between the diocese and the Anglican congregation. They include the return of the Falls Church Day School, which serves more than 200 children, to Falls Church Episcopal oversight and Bishop Shannon Johnston’s decision to give the Rev. Cathy Tibbetts, Falls Church Episcopal priest-in-charge, “authority to respond generously to requests for weddings and funerals in the Falls Church by members of the Falls Church Anglican.”

Meanwhile, Burt reported in his letter that “each of the continuing congregations remains profoundly committed to its mission and ministry” and is “experiencing significant growth.” However, the letter notes that in some instances “no continuing congregation exists” and reports that so-called Dayspring teams “are considering a number of transformational mission efforts.”

Dayspring is an “integrated effort to discern and implement vision and strategy in response to the return of Episcopal properties to the mission of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia,” according to the diocese.

“There is need to step back and take careful consideration of the options and possibilities that lie before us” as properties are returned and congregations return home, the diocese said.

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


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Comments (13)

  1. Mark Thomas says:

    This troubles me… It is very sad that the Church of Jesus has to resort to the courts. May the Spirit guide all those involved.

  2. The Rev. John T. Farrell says:

    Add sore losers to the appellations of thieves and traitors. These people are pathetic.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Rev. Farrell,
      To say that “these people are pathetic” continues the dismissive attitude that accompanied the quickening downward spiral in our Church since 2003. The concerns of these and other thousands of members was dismissed cavalierly as “the few who don’t want to be with us”. Now that we are losing dioceses, number below 2 million, can’t attract half of that to show up, are shuttering cathedrals and seminaries, one would hope that dismissing the valid critiques and concerns of the membership would not continue to be the order of the day. It’s their money. Let ’em try. If they don’t win it doesn’t affect TEC or your church in particular. If they do win, maybe it is the wake-up call that this self-crippling Church needs to get back on track. The Pension officials get it. General Convention leaders are waking up to it: We are dying out fast, and can’t sustain ourselves, and I would add that it is mainly because Christian America isn’t buying what we are offering and what we have committed to for a generation: indiscriminate theological faith and practice – something that has absolutely not worked in any church, or diocese where it has been dominantly taught or practiced.

    2. Jason Matthew says:

      I guess some Episcopal clergy are only accepting and welcoming if you are in 100% lockstep with the leadership. I cannot believe that a “Rev.” in any Church would refer to fellow brothers in Christ as “pathetic.” Incredible….and sad…

  3. Mike Winns says:

    Mark,

    Was it not TEC that sued the congregation instead of trying to come up with an amicable settlement?

  4. Cody Blair says:

    Rev. Farrell,

    Thank you for speaking candidly. It is unfortunate that a number of people chose to leave, unlawfully hold church property, and refuse to recognize the movement of the Spirit in our midst. I don’t believe that the “people are pathetic”, but I do believe that the whole situation is “pathetic”. If a parish decides it wants to leave the TEC that should be their full right, however, you have to do it like any other upstart group…from the ground up! You don’t get to keep the beautiful buildings, the sacred vessels, vestments, bank accounts etc. You have to cut your losses and start out on a new trek, and make your own way. Unfortunately, we cannot ask the founding members of the Church (who we EPISCOPALIAN) if they would still want to be Episcopalian. We can’t ask all those generations who helped build an EPISCOPAL Church if they are upset with the direction of the Church. We just can’t do that…therefore, it would have to be assumed that the Church started out Episcopalian, and it must forever remain so.

    I applaud TEC for standing up against conservative groups that would bully others into accepting their own vision of the church, version of the “truth”, and interpretation of scripture.

    It’s unfortunate that things have come to this, but the alternative isn’t acceptable either.

    There are many a people who wring their hands at how “hopeless” the situation is for the TEC, but I don’t believe it’s as bleak as some would have us to believe. I attend a church that is in the top 3 Episcopal parishes for Sunday attendance. We currently have about 2,500 members, 5 Eucharist Services on Sunday where well over 200 attend EVERY SUNDAY, and Compline Sunday evening. We have morning and evening prayer daily. Membership at our parish is soaring. Yes, we are in a downtown urban setting … that may account for some of it. However, I come from a rural parish and I can honestly say that even with the changes in the Church that rural parish is still trucking on. Most of the membership decline there has been due to death. So, while there may be several thousand who have left the TEC … it’s not as bleak as others would have us to believe.

    We will move forward … we will progress. Some will be with us, and others will be against us, but the Gospel will still move forward in the love and acceptance of Jesus Christ.

    1. Colby Register says:

      Cody,

      Not to detract from your argument, but Falls Church was actually founded as an Anglican church :-/

      In other highlights, I agree the Anglican congregation has no right to keep the property etc. Its just sad TEC hasn’t been more accommodating locally and nationally in an attempt to compromise and make a place for all in the church. Conservative and Progressive. After all, no matter what side of the cross we lie (Left or Right), there is always room in the middle. We’ll have to get along in Heaven, might as well “test try” it down on Earth.

    2. Fr John Crean says:

      Amen. These people just don’t and won’t get it. While it is a shame for believers to have to go to court, what other remedy is there for outright piracy? Go quietly and humbly, ye dissidents. Please cease and desist from your looting and intransigence. The property belongs to the diocese and the national church, not to the self-appointed bunch of bandits who think they know it all better. It is indeed “pathetic” in the original sense of Greek pathos. Look it up if you don’t believe me.

  5. A congregation that does not want to remain in the Episcopal Church has a right to leave. But it cannot take the property. That said, these cases should be settled in one of the following 3 ways. 1. Walk away. 2. Rent the property at market value. 3. Buy the property at market value.

  6. Doug Desper says:

    I have a simple request. Will ENS please publish the minutes of the action from the General Convention which passed the property legislation known as the Dennis Canon? There is a lot of discussion about this canon but many claim that it is practically untraceable in legislation and that its passage was questionable. Let’s start there, if we can.

  7. Ken Beck says:

    Mr. Desper:
    The legislative information you seek may be available at the Episcopal Church Archives, http://www.episcopalarchives.org/digital_archives.html

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Thanks for the link for the summary. I had expected details often found in the minutes of proceedings not just that (basically) “it passed – really it did”. Makes the pedigree a bit strained.

  8. Alan Musick says:

    If it were not for the Episcopal Church I would not attend any at all. I would study the Bible at home and just merely be “spiritual.” That is where the whole church world is heading if it does not get away from far right wing inspired spiritual abuse. So instead of saying it is the “gay agenda” seeking to bring down the church. Consider first your own attitudes and seek to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.

    The Episcopal Church could be more like there brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church and sweep instances of sexual abuse under the rug. The Episcopal Church could be anxiously paying people off to be quiet about sexual misconduct. Thankfully, that is not happening here. Instead it is taking a stand for love and justice just as Jesus Christ (Love your neighbor as yourself. Judge not, lest ye also be judged.) would do if he were in flesh and on Earth.

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