Virginia Supreme Court to rule on Anglican-Episcopal church property fight

By Michelle Boorstein There’s some news in the ongoing infighting among American Anglicans. Next week will mark a turning point … Continued

By Michelle Boorstein

There’s some news in the ongoing infighting among American Anglicans.

Next week will mark a turning point in a three-year-old court battle over church property in Virginia when the state Supreme Court weighs in. The case is being watched by Anglicans around the country – and other faith groups facing bitter, potentially litigious divisions.

Tens of millions of dollars have been spent and friends and families divided over the question of who owns a dozen churches – including some large, prestigious properties in Northern Virginia that belonged for centuries to the Episcopal Church. But at the end of 2006 majorities of members of the churches, including Truro Church and The Falls Church, voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join other, more conservative overseas branches of the larger Anglican Communion. Disagreements range from the ordination of women to the status of gay men and women to what the Bible says about salvation.

The breakaway conservatives have won almost all the court rulings so far, but the case is complex and involves both state and federal constitutional issues.

The Virginia Supreme Court could rule next week in a way that will lead to an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, or it could shut that avenue down and bring the case back to the Fairfax court were it was originally heard. There’s a slight chance next week’s ruling could end the case, but that seems unlikely considering how much time, money and emotion has been sunk into it by both sides.

While the real issues are about scripture and sexuality, the issues before the court are a bit drier. They center on a Civil War-era law in Virginia governing how bickering churches split up property when they divide. Many houses of worship around the country are facing similar disputes, particularly about sexuality, and are watching the Virginia case to see how it plays out.

Meanwhile, there has been a break in the breakaway movement. What it really means and what impact it will have, if any, is unclear, at least to me at the moment.

With dozens more American Episcopal churches separating from the Episcopal Church in recent years, the conservatives last year formed an umbrella group they hope will soon be recognized as an official Anglican province – basically a second branch of the Anglican Church, alongside the Episcopal Church. That group is called the Anglican Church in North America.

But last month Anglican Mission in the Americas, which made up a large segment of the new umbrella group, voted to loosen its membership in the Anglican Church in North America.

A statement by the group says the decision was made to clear up “confusion” about its governance, seeing as it has been a part of the Anglican Church of Rwanda for a decade. The statement, and an interview I did today with conservative leader Bishop Martyn Minns make clear the group also wanted to focus more on church-planting and less on the whole business of creating an alternative to the Episcopal Church. Minns, former rector at Truro and a leader in the new umbrella group, said “it’s not a big issue,” just a matter of different segments of the movement focusing on different things.

But some on the Episcopal Church side see other significance, namely that the conservatives aren’t really united and that the percentage of conservatives that care strongly about the sexuality issue is small.

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  • timmil

    “prestigious properties in Northern Virginia that belonged for centuries to the Episcopal Church”Gee Michelle, if only everyone had come to you to find out who owned the properties in the first place, there wouldn’t be any trouble now 😉

  • vabooklover

    Please take the time to read the actual court argument. The Falls Church pre-dates the existence of the diocese, so how could the diocese own it? But the arguments go well beyond that. In any case, if a supermajority of members want to leave the denomination, why shouldn’t they be allowed to take their property with them?

  • enemsee

    I’ve never quite understood how a group of NON-Episcopalians are allowed to stay on Episcopalian property, while the remaining Episcopalians that do not agree with the split have to go elsewhere, but that’s just me. Seems like a no-brainer.

  • glendermott

    Since the parishes hold title to the property via their deeds and trustees under established Virginia law, then they own the property. If the diocese divided they should be able to select which branch of that divide to join don’t you think?

  • LifeLongVirginian

    No trustee “pre-dates the existence of the diocese”, and the vestry swore (contracted perhaps in the legal sense) to uphold the Episcopal Church, but all these facts seem to escape Vabooklover and Glendermott. The diocese did not divide, it is doing the Lord’s work just fine. Some, who do not seem to believe in “love your neighbor as yourself” want to keep Episcopal Church property for their own selfish purposes. Shame on them. Hopefully the Virginia Supreme Court will end this foolishness and stop the government’s attempt (yes, including you, Mr. Cuccinelli) to manipulate the religious workings of the Episcopal Church.

  • glendermott

    It is interesting that vestry members in Virginia swear to uphold the teaching of scripture as a ‘first’ priority. The Bishop of Virginia referred to this sad ‘division’ in his letter to departing congregations. The very Diocesan protocol for departing congregation also referred to a ‘division’. The Presiding Bishop in her sworn testimony at the trial, also referred to the ‘division’ and to the fact that CANA was a ‘branch’ of Anglicanism. Get your facts straight please

  • rmartin0602

    Your right to the one who said “no brainer”