State high court won’t reconsider decision against Falls Church Anglican

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jun 14, 2013

[Episcopal News Service] In a one-sentence order issued June 14, the Virginia Supreme Court denied a request from The Falls Church Anglican to rehear its earlier decision reaffirming a circuit court ruling that returned The Falls Church property to loyal Episcopalians to use for the  mission of the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church.

The denial sends the case back to the Fairfax County Circuit Court for final resolution of issues related to personal property.

“The decision by the Supreme Court is about much more than litigation,” Virginia Bishop Shannon S. Johnston said in a diocesan press release. “This decision is an occasion for all those, on both sides, to focus fully on positive ministries ahead.”

The Rev. John Ohmer, rector of The Falls Church Episcopal, said that he and his congregation are “relieved by this decision and looking forward to turning a new page.

The Rev. Deacon Edward W. Jones, secretary of the diocese, called the decision “an affirming one,” adding that the diocese is “looking to the future with gratefulness and optimism.”

The Falls Church Anglican has not yet commented on the ruling.

The Falls Church was one of 11 congregations in the diocese in which a majority of members voted to disaffiliate from the diocese and the Episcopal Church. Over the years, all but The Falls Church Anglican had settled their property conflicts with the diocese and the church after judicial decisions in favor of the diocese and the church.

The June 14 ruling is the latest in a long series in the dispute.

After a Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge ordered The Falls Church Anglican in March 2012 to return the parish property to the diocese, the Anglicans only agreed to allow the Episcopalians to return to the parish building to celebrate Easter (April 8, 2012).

However, the Anglican congregation soon thereafter appealed to the state Supreme Court and in the meantime asked the Circuit Court to prevent the Episcopalians from returning again until the high court ruled. The Circuit Court refused and the Falls Church Episcopalians returned to their property on May 15, 2012.

On April 18 of this year, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court ruling returning the Falls Church property to the Episcopalians. It was this ruling that The Falls Church Anglican asked the court to reconsider, despite earlier comments by the Rev. John Yates, The Falls Church Anglican’s rector, on April 28 that the Supreme Court’s “overwhelming rejection of our arguments … reduces our legal options drastically.”

And in his weekly message for the week of May 19, Yates said: “We have received further confirmation that the courts are not likely to reverse last year’s ruling.” He explained why the congregation’s leaders are “willing to lose our property and move ahead into an uncertain, unclear future.”

However, on May 17, the Anglican congregation petitioned the state Supreme Court for a rehearing on its April 18 decision. The petition argued that the justices mistakenly based that ruling on a legal theory that “has never — in over six years of litigation — been pled, argued, briefed, or proven” by the Episcopal Church or the Diocese of Virginia.

The court’s June 14 order did not address The Falls Church Anglican claims.

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


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Comments (24)

  1. Lucia Lloyd says:

    Wonderful that this is finally coming to a resolution and both groups can move on with their lives and their ministries.

  2. Al Lingo says:

    It is very encouraging and satisfying to see the Courts affirm the fact that ALL OF US GAVE OUR CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH and not to the Local Parish!! We were and still are Episcopalians.

    Thanks for the good reporting, keep it up.!!

    Al Lingo. Stockton,
    Calif.
    St. Anne’s Episcopal Church.

  3. Genie Carr says:

    It never ceases to amaze me that congregations that don’t want to be affiliated with The Episcopal Church still want the property. Makes me think that it’s all (or mostly) about the property, not about a belief that they’re willing to support with sacrifice and starting anew, including in new spaces.

    Genie Carr
    (parishioner) St. Paul’s, Winston-Salem, NC

  4. Ryan Hall says:

    Congrats. Yet another reason I fled the Episcopal church like hundreds of others. Kudos.

    1. Greg Brown says:

      Godspeed.

  5. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    I read the news with a sense of relief. All parishes should review articles of incorporation to make sure it is clearly stated the property belongs ultimately to the Diocese. It is sometimes difficult to locate a copy of the articles. I recommend the appointment of a parish chancellor. This should be a lawyer with a local practice who can keep track of legal papers while rectors and vestry members come and go.

  6. Susan Alves Haywood Lunardini says:

    My Uncle, Rev. J. Hodge Alves, was rector of the Fallls Church for over twenty years. I did not even know ownership was in contention. He authored a book about Falls Church. I have strong feeling about both sides of this coin. Uncle Hodge was a 15th generation Episcopalian and always felt the honor of serving in this historic place. Unity is hard for many Episcopalians when new thought seems to them to be contrary to Canon by which they learned their faith. We lost so many actual buiding and property when the American Revolution ended and perhaps their properties were still in doubt. We all worship one Lord, one Savior, and pray the Holy Spirit will guide us to provide the same faith to our children and to others that was so freely given to us.

    1. Kathy Richardson says:

      Hi Susan,
      I don’t know if you’ll see this, as it is now 2016, but my family went to Falls Church for several years in the 1950’s. And I well remember your Uncle Hodge as the Alves were friends of my mom and dad, Ozzie and Addy Lynch. Both of them are passed away. and I did not keep in touch. But, I saw this and thought I’d reply. Have a great day.

  7. Doug Desper says:

    Before all the unpleasantness the Falls Church was a leading Episcopal church that was held up in their Diocese and across the Church as an example of meaningful and measurable growth and vitality. They were relied on and bragged about. In the meantime they have searched the Scriptures beyond superficial meanings and have found many decisions by leading revisionists greatly lacking and increasingly they found that they were marginalized. They are gone and will not be back. So, the campus – built by their energy and funds – is left to a much, much smaller group who will be fortunate to muster 200 people this Sunday and also pay for its ongoing survival. In my own church the family of the 1920s founders (Episcopalian missionaries) and about 1/3 of the long-term supporters have left the Church of their youth, middle, and older age. Thousands more are leaving, dioceses are quitting and splitting. South Carolina is gone. We now number just below 2 million with perhaps 600,000 showing up. This is not victory. Stuff without people? Property to be used for what?
    We must find a day – very soon – when the General Convention Bucket List undertaken by today’s leading progressive revisionists will become healing and less divisive and stop irritating people out of their own churches.

    1. CHUCK EVANS says:

      South Carolina is NOT gone. Only the “lower Diocese.” 50% of Episcopalians in South Carolina are in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina. The one that lost most of its churches are in the Diocese of South Carolina made up of most missions and parishes.
      In the Upper Diocese only one parish in Spartanburg and one mission elsewhere have left the ECUSA.

  8. It is excessively odd that a group will leave a church to demonstrate its high moral stance in objecting to the gay issue but concomitantly want property that will afford a place in which to worship and an appropriate setting for the attendant guilt of such a duplicitous morality. Such assaults seem to be felonious raids on the entire body of Christ’s Church on earth instead of the fatuous claim of the righteous re-alighnment of titleholder.
    .

  9. Bruce Bogin says:

    There was a time when people used the Bible to support their view that slavery was proper. Later, these people used the Bible to support their view that segregation and treatment of black people as third-class citizens was proper. There was a time when people used the Bible to support their view that divorced people could not be remarried in the Church. There was a time, and sadly, it still exists, when people used the Bible to support their view that woman were not equal to men and that they should not be permitted to serve as priests and bishops. Today people use the Bible to support their views that homosexuals should be excluded from priesthood in the Church. Over the centuries many people have learned that the teachings of the Bible should be interpreted in the light of our scientific learning and the broadening of our understanding that ALL people are equal in Christ, and that ALL people should be treated the same. To rely on the Bible as supporting discrimination against groups of people because of their color, their gender or their sexual orientation is nothing but bigotry wrapped in Scripture to make it palatable and excusable. I would far rather be the very last person in an Episcopal Church which loves and treats ALL people as one in Jesus Christ than ally myself with those who smugly practice bigotry in His name and with their Bibles clutched under their arms. A church which discriminates against groups of people is a church in name only.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Bruce –
      I hasten to add to your comments that the perfection of the Law, Jesus Christ, is the one to look to. The journey of Israel’s becoming a faithful people found in the OT is not a cookbook for how to do everything right. Errant relationships, relationships being corrected, obedience, fallacies, faithlessness, and hope are all there in the OT as a record of the journey towards faithfulness, but it is illogical to point towards their mistakes as definitive of God’s will. King David was faithful and the apple of God’s eye, but not when he misled and caused murder. Abram rode on a saddle containing idols while worshipping the One God, and eventually tossed his idols aside. Does that mean that we look at his idol worship and copy it? No. We look instead to his maturing in the faith when he became more fully obedient and faithful. Moments of idolatry, murder, polygamy, etc. are not definitive but the evidence of a people who were being changed. With regards to marriage, look to the perfection of the Law and the hope of Israel; there is absolutely no ambiguity from the mouth of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 19 (Jesus quotes Genesis 2): “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?” The Lord has clearly declared the will of God for marriage by reminding us of God’s design in the beginning. Since then humanity – including Israel in Scripture – has used human reason to justify doing something else. The will of God hasn’t changed no matter how many reasonable people say so.

      1. Bruce Bogin says:

        I guess what bothers me about your comment is your supposition that whatever Jesus is alleged to have said about marriage in the first century, 2,000 years ago, is cast in concrete as God’s will for all time. It does not take into account that Jesus was willing to break rules when it suited him, as in the several examples when he healed on the Sabbath and was taken to task for so doing by the synogogue leaders. The Jesus in whom I believe and whom I worship was in my view and above all a man of compassion. He truly felt for others. I think that He very well may have come to different conclusion today after 2,000 years of learning.

        1. Doug Desper says:

          Bruce –
          Jesus reiterated Genesis 2 (one man -one woman united in marriage) at the beginning of the Common Era after a few thousand years of humanity’s self-exalting experimentation into other relational options: polygamy, bridal slavery, same-sex relationships, demands for divorce, arranged marriages, and many other guises. Interesting that after a few thousand years of such deformities that He simply returned to the beginning. It’s all been tried – it’s all been excused away – it’s all been a disaster. He calls us to return to God’s design. Modern humanity hasn’t come into anything new; however some among us involve themselves in the latest version of an old story of self-deception that seeks to be disobedient to the will of God. Jesus didn’t “break the rules” on this one. It’s crystal clear. His words, not mine. So, the question: are we a Church that believes that His words are Gospel or that He is just an enlightened teacher of that time? Do we believe that human tradition and reason trump Scripture? Some believe so, and that’s why we’re bleeding members, closing parishes, losing whole dioceses, shuttering cathedrals, and merging seminaries. The path of listening with itching ears to teachers we accumulate is costing the Church.

    2. Sheri Mason says:

      Beautifully said!!!!!!!! What a beautiful reflection of Christ you are.

  10. I have only been an Episcopalian for four years and my church is united on most issues. Our Rector
    a women, is a third generation priest. We have, like most churches a congregation of middle to late
    generations. Our assistant Rector is a gay, male priest. We are very active and are a very warm and
    loving church family. I was formerly a Lutheran and unfortunately left due to their reluctant acceptance of famale clergy (ELCA) it broke my heart. No church is exempt from the issues which
    plague the secular society but we are susposed to have “more” on our side then laws.

  11. Lisa Fox says:

    I am glad that the Falls Church is being returned to the faithful Episcopalians who have built up this church in a long tradition since the Revolutionary War. I am sad that some reactionaries have followed their own “purity movement” to leave TEC. No one kicked them out. The “conservatives” could have remained in the Church and their building. But, no. They had to declare their “purity” and declare all others as “unclean” or even “heretical.” It was their hubris that made them take this step which has now cost them the building that ALL the Episcopalians have built. How very sad. If they had remained together, I expect this will blow over in another 10 years or so. The schismatics of the purity sect have no one to blame but themselves.

    1. Grant Carson says:

      “I am glad that the Falls Church is being returned to the faithful Episcopalians who have built up this church in a long tradition since the Revolutionary War.” You surely got that wrong! The faithful Episcopalians who built up the church are the ones that left. The ones that remained WERE FEWER THAN ONE PERCENT.

      And “apostate” may be a better description than “heretical.”

  12. Gilbert Martinez says:

    Is it any wonder why despite their claims of exponential growth in developing countries, churches of the “puritanical” kind almost always had doors slammed to their faces whenever they conduct their house to house literature crusade or people leaving their evangelical meetings without the assurance of returning and coming forward at the next altar call? It’s because for many people, especially those already born and raised as christians-even if nominally baptized, all these sanctimonious posturing, bible thumping preaching and repeated questions of “are you saved and prepared for the rapture?” Are meaningless to those who earn less than half a dollar and eat only one plate of decent meal–and by decent means scrap left overs from restaurant bins recooked as meat balls and rice congies–a day, and they find all these imported bible preachers on t.v. shows and airconditioned churches and hotel convention centers, and their affluent flocks offering each other for a ride to their bible study venues when they had their own luxury cars waiting at the parking lot makes them cringe and shake their heads at the hypocrisy of their apparent holiness and yet lacking the substance of compassion and justice for the poor and the oppressed. So for me all these sanctimonious posturing really means nothing to me but a bunch of holier than thou rantings of armchair theologians and moralists who have all the time and leisure in their hands to make their “concerted” effort at re-aligning the axis of the anglican communion in their favor in playing the persecuted martyr role in the mainland while orchestrating the manipulative game of hoisting the “bait” on sympathetic clergies and churches in the global south who are gullibly of the same mind as they are and are too eager to grab on the offer and enjoy the perks of becoming part of the global south realignment of the anglican communion… and also of the sharing of its blessings (and this includes church properties and assests).

    1. Grant Carson says:

      Wow! I’m not a sanctimonious bible thumper going from door to door and handing out tracts. My church is Rite I Anglo-Catholic. But you’re right insofar as I believe the Great Commission is enduring, having been commanded by Christ, and can’t be replaced by a U.N. resolution.

      Incindentally, did you know there are more earned doctorates in theology in the Church of Nigeria than there are in the Church of England?

    2. Gilbert Martinez says:

      I’ve heard one too many of clergy reactions as to why evangelicalism (of the militant puritanical kind) don’t get much of an attention in the local episcopal churches in the philippines but often end up lumped together with the bible fundie sects for their elitism and aloofness to the social realities of this country. One even confided that after attending one of those global south to south encounters, they felt more like puppets with incentives offered just to have their presence (and ofcourse their signatures and photo ops) and add credence to their agendas of realignment. And for this reason many of them declined to have any further contacts with that group and unanimously agreed with the synod in rejecting the proposed anglican covenant and renewed the covenant of partnership with the episcopal church. All those talk of morality and alignment only works within the walls of seminary classrooms and had no real bearings on the lives of majority of the people who had seldom heard about anglicanism much less its exotic evangelical variety limited to filipino chinese anglicans whose ministers aren’t even graduates of local seminary but had to be imported all the way from singapore (hence the derisive term “singapore virus” applied to clerics coming into contact and spreading their brand of anglicanism among majority of local episcopalians born and raised in the anglo-catholic tradition).

  13. Grant Carson says:

    Wow, you’re really angry! (And off the subject.)

  14. Gilbert Martinez says:

    Truly, as what an old anticolonial saying goes on to say, “when america sneezes, the world catches cold,” or in the case of these disgruntled conservative anglican schismatics and their allies in their global south realignment agenda, “when they rock the anglican titanic, they assume those belonging to the lower decks would also join them in rocking the boat.” Well they can have can have the sinking ship if that’s what they want. But their bitterness over defeat in church property squabbles only serves to confirm that for all their so called moral righteousness posturings and calls for biblical crusade for anglican orthodoxy only matters so much to them as it concerns their own properties and vested interests with no connection or even an afterthought on what these will have on the credibility of anglicanism to episcopal churches in the (under)developed world. They might have not realized it but they ought to consider themselves lucky for having all these consultations, discussions, debates and time for discernments on these issues over spanning decades, issues that are actually ephemeral but now they strive to elevate to the level of a creed or dogma, issues that third world peoples find so trivial that they can only sratch their heads and sigh how come these affluent people sitting comfortably in their churches can make a proverbial mountain out of a molehill when people here exclaim “if it ain’t filling an empty stomach, it’s plain useless” for many of them can’t even think of praying to God or even think about the morality as they literally move heaven and earth just to have a taste of a descent meal for their family or finding a shelter or place to lay their weary and hungry bodies when evening thunderstorms drive them away from their cardboard shanties on sidewalks; where such issues aren’t even matters of life and death as what increasing numbers of pastors, priests and even bishops from catholics to protestant churches experienced for themselves for daring to defend the rights of poor farmers and ancestral domains of marginalized indigenous peoples receiving threats of harrasment, abductions, illegal detentions, torture and murder from hired death squads and underground paramilitary groups roaming the countryside. It’s a shame how people of faith are blinded over parrochial issues that they forgot to open their eyes and see that the episcopal church and the anglican communion does not revolve around nor exist solely for them or their agendas, there’s a whole wide world out here challenging first world churches to stop bickering like spoiled children deprived of their choco chip cookies and start acting like compassionate adults in reaching out to their less fortunate brothers and sisters still struggling to survive and live descently on the other (underdeveloped) side of the episcopal-anglican world.

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