F.C. Episcopal Church Faces Fight to Keep Property After Voting to Exit Denomination

The Falls Church Episcopal Church’s hopes that it could hold onto its property in downtown Falls Church even as it exited the mainstream Episcopal Church denomination took a turn for the worse last week.

Two days after the local conservative church’s ruling body, called a vestry, voted 15-2 to leave the larger denomination, the denomination’s Richmond-based regional diocese reacted by denying that any “protocol” was in place to settle resultant property disputes.

The leadership of Falls Church Episcopal Church, with the Rev. John Yates as rector and a membership of 2,484, reacted strongly against the November 2003 Episcopal Church consecration of the openly-gay Rev. Eugene Robinson as a bishop. Since then, the church and an ally, the Truro Episcopal Church of Fairfax, have spearheaded a movement of churches to exit the denomination, citing what they claim was, in fact, “a disagreement spanning the past four decades over basic truths of the Christian faith.”

But under the rules of the 2.2-million member Episcopal denomination, each of its diocese own all the real estate of the churches under its control. By those rules, if the Falls Church Episcopal finalizes its decision to leave the denomination at a vote of the entire congregation early next month, the church members will have to vacate the historic downtown Falls Church site, and its church-owned surroundings, where George Washington was once a vestryman.

According to a joint press release from The Falls Church and the Truro Episcopal Church, another historic church that claims Washington as an original vestryman that also voted to leave the denomination last week, the decisions to sever ties by each of the churches was taken in the context of what they assert was an on-going dialogue aimed to resolve the property issue in a way favorable to the individual churches.

The churches claim a “protocol” had been developed over the course of a year of discourse with diocese officials that “indicated a way forward that allows us to recognize that while there is a fundamental division in the diocese, we can settle those issues in a Christ-like manner,” according to Tom Wilson, a senior warden at The Falls Church. “That is still our heartfelt conviction,” he said.

Citing reports that the bishop of the Virginia diocese, Rev. Peter Lee, had earlier agreed to the terms of the “protocol,” Wilson said, “We took Bishop Lee at his word.”

Lee’s office responded simply, after the two church’s votes to split from the denomination on Nov. 11 and 13, that “no protocol exists.”

According to a report by Falls Church’s Julia Duin, writing in the Nov. 16 Washington Times, Bishop Lee referred in a 2004 press conference to a letter he’d written on the prospects of an exodus from the denomination by some churches. He said then, “I said that I believe that I had a responsibility to the Episcopalians of the past who built the church, and to the Episcopalians of the future, who will use the church, not to stand by and let the current generation walk away with their property.”

Thus, pending the predictable outcome that the full congregations of each of the churches will vote to confirm the split next month, the stage is set for what could be a monumental battle over control of the historic church properties.

The value of the downtown Falls Church City site of The Falls Church is estimated at $27 million, but could be much higher, given the intense development plans of the City around it. That property includes a parking lot and strip shopping center acquired by the church in 2000. The church compelled the vacation of the shopping center by the seven businesses there.

But when the larger Episcopal denomination voted to consecrate the openly-gay Eugene Robinson as a bishop in November 2003, all of the local church’s plans for construction of a “parish life center” on the property were put on hold.

That was because the church leadership immediately saw the liability in pouring an estimated $18 million into the project if it was going to leave the denomination and have its property seized by the diocese.

For the last three years, therefore, the strip shopping center on the south side of E. Fairfax Street has remained unutilized, except for some limited church uses. What used to be seven thriving, tax-paying businesses had been long since disbursed.

An attempt supported by The Falls Church and Truro, along with other discontented denominations, to change the state law in the Virginia legislature to mandate that property ownership be held by local churches, and not the diocese of the Episcopal Church, failed.

But now, as the storm clouds gather over what may be an historic fight over control of the church property here and in Fairfax, the leadership and congregation of the local church faces a possible outcome similar to the expulsions they ordered for the small businesses in its strip mall just a few years ago.