24 Feb 2011

What Will the Episcopal Church Do to Washington’s Church?

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The church where Washington was a vestryman.

Bryan Preston reports on the lengths that the Episcopal Church has been willing to go to punish parishes attempting to break away as the result of the ordination of an avowedly practicing homosexual as bishop.

I’m not at all religious and this story makes my blood boil. It must be seriously annoying to actual believing Christians.

The town of Falls Church, VA, gets its name from the beautiful historic church at its heart. The Falls Church was built in the time of George Washington, who was himself a vestryman at the church, and the original chapel still stands amid a far larger and more modern campus, and today boasts about 2,500 members. According to a historical marker nearby, the Falls Church was a recruiting station for the fledgling army that Washington led. But today the Falls Church is the target of a scorched earth campaign that the Episcopal Church USA, now called The Episcopal Church (TEC) is waging against several of its own congregations.

The Falls Church’s differences with TEC began over doctrinal issues in the 1970s, but came to a head in 2003 with the Episcopal Church’s ordination of the first non-celibate gay bishop. Many Episcopal churches, including the Falls Church and seven others in northern Virginia, elected to separate from TEC and created a parallel church network aligned with the Anglican Communion. But TEC claimed ownership of the Falls Church’s sprawling campus, and a lawsuit soon followed to wrest the property away from the congregation. Claiming alienation of property, the Episcopal Church went to courtroom war against its breakaway flocks.

The TEC’s lawsuit against the eight churches hinges on property ownership: Who owns the buildings and lands where the congregations meet? What would seem to be a straightforward issue, isn’t, thanks in part to how Episcopal churches are governed. Episcopal churches exist somewhere between Catholic parishes, the properties of which rest solely in the hands of bishops, and most Protestant churches, which own their own properties independent of their denomination or larger structural organization. Unlike Catholic churches, Episcopal churches exercise some independence from the larger church and have the power to vote on whether to sever ties with TEC. These churches did just that. But unlike other Protestant churches, Episcopal churches exercise somewhat less independence from their larger church. But the deeds to the properties in question are in the names of the local trustees, not the TEC itself.

These churches also predate the founding of the Episcopal diocese in Virginia itself. In fact, they are among its founding churches. Falls Church itself dates back to 1734. The diocese that is suing it is three decades its junior.

Nevertheless, the Episcopal Church has continued to wage a very expensive war in court. Jim Oakes, chairman of the Anglican Division of Virginia, estimates that the case has cost the local churches and TEC between $5 million and $8 million on both sides, or between $10 million to $16 million total. For churches that exist to provide ministry to families and towns, those millions could have surely been put to much better use than hiring lawyers and engaging in legal proceedings that have now lasted five years.

As the years have worn on, the churches have offered to settle out of court at each stage, only to be rejected by the Episcopal Church, and then have prevailed over TEC in court. That changed when the case made it all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which handed the case back down to the circuit level after finding that the law at the heart of the case – called the division statute – did not apply in this case.

That trial is now set for the end of April, and is expected to take about six weeks. One Falls Church congregant I spoke with worries not just about the eventual ownership of the properties, but about the eventual intentions of the Episcopal Church itself. When I asked what was the worst case scenario, he pointed me to the outcome of a similar case in Binghamton, New York. The Episcopal Church’s victory over a breakaway church there led to this:

    The Church of the Good Shepherd, which has stood at #79 Conklin Avenue since 1879, has been willingly turned over to a Muslim entity by the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York, rather than have it remain in the hands of traditional Anglicans who practice the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

    The death knell for the structure as a Christian house of worship was delivered on February 9, 2010, when it was sold to Imam Muhammad Affify, doing business as the Islamic Awareness Center, for a mere $50,000, a fraction of the church’s assessed $386,400 value.

    Now, two months later, the classic red Anglican doors have been repainted green, the simple cross on top of the steeply peaked bell tower has been lopped off, and a windowpane cross in the side door has been disfigured leaving only narrow vertical glass with the cross beam being painted over to hide it. The Muslims consider the cross a pagan symbol.

    Meanwhile the Rev. Matt Kennedy, his wife and partner in ministry Anne, their young family and congregation were sent packing in the bitter cold and deep snow in January 2008 when the New York Supreme Court ordered them to relinquish the 130-year-old church building which stands overlooking the meandering Susquehanna River.

Good Shepherd had offered to purchase the property before any legal proceedings began, but TEC refused, just as it has refused to settle with the majority of the Virginia churches. After winning the Binghamton suit, TEC sold the historic church to the Islamic group for about a third of what the congregation had offered. …

[An Episcopalian source describing a similar case in Leesburg, VA, notes:]

    Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is on record saying she would sooner see fleeing parishes sold for saloons than see them affiliate with African and Southern Cone dioceses that uphold “the faith once delivered for all to the saints.”

Saloons rather than traditional churches? That is why the word “jihad” is in the title of this article. The Episcopal Church’s actions in Binghamton and elsewhere defy reason, unless they were intended to send a very strong and unmistakable message to traditional congregants who might be thinking of breaking away: Defy us, and we will not only hound and possibly crush your congregation through expensive lawsuits, we will see that your cherished houses of worship are desecrated. And we will go to any lengths to send this message, even if we must turn your houses of worship into saloons, or mosques. Even if George Washington himself once worshiped there.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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12 Feedbacks on "What Will the Episcopal Church Do to Washington’s Church?"

Thalpy

What sadness! “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything”, GK Chesterton.



Lazarus Long

Time to unsheath the sword of St. George.



Surellin

I’m an Episcopalian, and we have had similar disagreements on these issues here in Ohio. Maybe our bishops have been more conciliatory, but here it seems to be the “splitters” who have been behaving badly – a minority grabbing control of the vestry and taking the church out of TEC, etc. Frankly, a lot of this simply results in members switching from one Episcopal church to another nearby, according to their sympathies on these issues. Consider it as the division of property in a divorce – sad, and everybody comes out of it looking bad.



cas

I live in nearby Springfield, VA, but I work on the outskirts of Falls Church. It’s a very historic community, with many of the old structures marked as landmarks, so idoubt that the TEC will be able to “desecrate” the church if they win. Besides, the local Muslims already have a mosque nearby http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dar_al-Hijrah; it’s where Anwar al-Awlaki used to preach jihad, before fleeing to Yemen. However,
I wouldn’t put it past TEC to offer George Washington’s church to them, in the “spirit of multiculturalism” and all… what complete nonsense!



Mr. Anonymous

Dear Surellin: It’s not about a splinter group (my Anglican church) — it’s about the ECUSA (Episcopal Church USA) leaving the Christian religion. They are instructed to “flee sexual immorality” and an ECUSA bishop (Bishop Robinson?) is an avowed homosexual. The ECUSA is on record as saying Jesus Christ was not divine. The Falls Church is clinging to biblical truth and splitting from an apostate church. Wish us luck.



d hubbeling

What is missing is the comments of the continuiing congregation of the Episcopal Church. There is a vibrant congregation of 175 people, many of whom were members of the Falls Church (Episcopal) and voted to not separate from TFCE. Indeed they are loyal to TEC, are growing and have within the congregation 2 of the 3 trustees for the Falls Church.
You are correct in the complexity of the issue- there are actually 14 deeds the majority of which give title to the diocese of Virgnia. And while the costs are astronomical, Mr Oakes failed to mention that his group filed the original law suit in Fairfax county courts. The counter suits by DOV and TEC followed. The continuing congregation has not filed suit. There have been no credible offers of reconcillation thus far.



kab sav

I have no words! I atteded The Falls Church one Sunday just as the congregation was starting to look seriously at leaving TEC. I thought the property battle was a done deal. I mean…it’s a no-brainer! This is so troubling and so sad, all at the same time. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.



scout

the last comment has it right. This is a no-brainer. When people leave a church, for whatever reason, they don’t get to take things with them. That includes prayerbooks, candlesticks, hymnals, kneelers, and it certainly includes the whole church. The people who decided their spiritual needs were no longer being met by associating with the Episcopal Church should have just left and built a new church. What they’ve spent on lawyers’ fees alone would have bankrolled a remarkably impressive new building. The idea that they could seize the property, evict those who wanted to stay, and do this without opposition was a mean-spirited pipe dream that has caused enormous waste in the Christian Community. Hopefully we are nearing the end of this saga.



JM

“When people leave a church, for whatever reason, they don’t get to take things with them.”

LOL. People did not leave: the rector and 90 percent of the congregation fled. If the Vestry votes to leave, the church is no longer Episcopalian. Besides, Jeffers Schor does not even believe the creeds in the prayer book, so why she expects anyone else to abide by her Fundamentalist take on less important ecclesiastical bylaws is strange. It’s all about affirming gay sex and female leadership, essentially. Christian faith be damned.



GodFearing

Wasn’t Jesus the champion of the outcast and downtrodden? The “occupying” Falls Church members literally locked out the those they felt weren’t Christian enough. The only thing I read in this piece is Islamaphobia and homophobia. The two great specters of fear among the religious right. Where is the love of Jesus in any of this? Surely not in the author’s written word.



Jase

‘Godfearing,’

There is no homophobia anywhere on here. Not accepting homosexual priests and bishops is not homophobia, applying that name to people who dissent is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt at character assassination. Before you get angry, I am gay.



Anon

I sat in the historic church this Sunday listening to the organ music at the end of the service. The realization struck that this was likely to be one of the few remaining opportunities to do so in this historic building.

But the church is bearing these circumstances well and the Love of Christ is palpable in the community even as we search to find a new home for worship.

Though the venue for worship is uncertain, the love of God is not.



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