By Michelle Boorstein
Virginia’s Supreme Court struck a blow to Anglican conservatives Thursday, ruling against nine congregations who split from the Episcopal Church after it installed an openly gay bishop.
At issue are tens of millions of dollars of church property and symbolic momentum for dueling movements in the Anglican Communion.
The unanimous decision by the five-judge panel dismissing a lower court ruling that favored conservatives is not likely to end the dispute for the nine church properties. The panel simply found that a Civil War-era law governing how property is divided when churches split was wrongly applied to the current dispute. The panel sent the parties back to Fairfax County Circuit Court for a second, parallel case that focuses on who owns the properties, which is expected to be more complex and messy.
Although the legal issues were particular to Virginia, the case has been closely watched by Anglicans worldwide and other faith groups battling over how to interpret Scripture. The Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, has been at odds for decades over everything from the ordination of women to the concept of salvation to more recent disputes about the rights of gays and lesbians to become clergy and marry. Conservatives’ push to separate revved up after church leaders voted in 2003 to ordain Gene Robinson, an openly gay New Hampshire priest, as bishop.
Several key leaders of the conservative Anglican movement are based in Northern Virginia, where the land dispute has been emotionally intense. Since the nine congregations — and a handful of others — voted in late 2006 and early 2007 to leave the Episcopal Church, families and friends have been divided, there have been threats of trespass arrest, and special worship sessions related to the many court dates, including fasting leading up to Thursday’s decision. Some Episcopal clergy keep their offices in Starbucks as they await the end of this three-year-old, multimillion-dollar case.
Even the language is loaded, as both sides insist the other “left,” or abandoned true Anglicanism.
“We continue to be confident in our legal position as we move forward and will remain steadfast in our effort to defend the historic Christian faith,” Jim Oakes, chairman of the umbrella organization of local Anglican congregations, said Thursday. “Ultimately, we know that the Lord is in control and our congregations will continue to put our trust in Him, not in secular courts or buildings.”
In four of the churches, small groups of Episcopalians remained together and have been meeting for years in other churches as they wait for the case to be resolved, hoping to get back into the buildings. Mike Pipkin, priest-in-charge of The Falls Church, said Thursday that the ruling makes his congregants feel that they are “one step closer to coming home.”
Asked whether the dispute was worth the emotion and about $3.5 million paid by the Virginia Diocese alone (the national church is also a party), he said: “We want to worship in our historic home, it’s a holy place for us. Children were baptized there, parents buried.” The 175-person congregation, which now meets in a Presbyterian church across the street, planned a healing worship service for Thursday night. Pipkin said he planned to call the rector of the Anglican congregation who worships in the 800-seat Falls Church.
The Anglican conservative movement in North America is small but growing, with about 100,000 members. The Episcopal Church, like much of organized religion, has been losing members in recent decades and has about 2.2 million members