[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.
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.