“I don’t think the vote will be close. I think the vast majority will vote for the recommendation of the church’s vestry,” a spokesperson for the Falls Church Episcopal Church told the News-Press yesterday. A historic congregational vote will proceed this Sunday that could result in the church’s severing ties it’s held for hundreds of years with the Episcopal Church.
The church is a historic centerpiece of Falls Church, with the original sanctuary and graveyard dating back to the 1700s a half-block from the intersection of Routes 29 and 7, considered the heart of the city. George Washington was a vestryman of the Alexandria church that created the Falls Church as a mission outpost, and the church hall was used by each side at different points during the Civil War, with Union forces utilizing it as a hospital.
Now, a ballot that the church’s some 2,800 members will have an opportunity to cast starting this Sunday for a week asks them to decide that “The Episcopal Church has departed from the authority of the Holy Scriptures and from historic Christian teaching on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the only Lord and Savior of humankind.”
If they agree on that, they will be asked to vote “that the Falls Church shall sever its denominational ties with The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia and affiliate with the Anglican District of Virginia.”
While the church has always had a theological bent decidedly more conservative than the vast majority of Episcopal congregations nationwide, especially since the arrival of Rector John Yates in the late 1980s, it was the controversial consecration of the openly-gay Rev. Eugene Robinson as a bishop in November 2003 that triggered an angry reaction by the church leading to this month’s vote to leave the denomination.
Since that date, the church’s leadership collaborated with leaders at the Truro Episcopal Church in the City of Fairfax to craft a coordinated response. The Truro Church is also voting on whether or not to leave the denomination this month.
Overall, the vote among bishops of the denomination, nationwide, to consecrate the Rev. Robinson was by a wide majority. However, it has led to convulsions within the denomination, and an active effort to shape a new church structure outside the traditional Episcopal Church’s one.
In the Falls Church Episcopal’s case, if the congregational vote goes the way the vestry wants it to, the church will depart the Episcopal denomination in favor of an alternate configuration known as the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).
As if to confirm the primary role of the Bishop Robinson consecration in the church’s move, a fact sheet on CANA distributed to church members dedicates one of only two paragraphs under a section entitled, “What does CANA believe?,” to its belief that “marriage, by divine institution, is a lifelong and exclusive union and partnership between one man and one woman.”
Moreover, the second “whereas” paragraph of the local church vestry’s Nov. 13 resolution to sever ties with the Episcopal Church blames “the election of a non-celibate unrepentant homosexual person as a bishop and the recognition of same-sex blessings as part of our common life,” for “tearing the fabric of our Communion.”
The CANA structure the church would affiliate with, should the vote to secede pass, will be under “under the spiritual authority and protection” of Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, described as the “chairman of the Primates of the Global South,” according to a letter from Yates to the congregation on Dec. 2.
Archbishop Akinola allegedly supports legislation in Nigeria that calls for prison sentences for homosexual activity. According to a comment on his popular blog this week entitled, “Slouching Toward Nigeria,” conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan remarks that the Falls Church Episcopal will be aligning with a bishop “who believes that gays should be incarcerated for the crime of adult consensual sex and that free speech should be curtailed.”
An intimately-related issue for the Falls Church Episcopal is the disposition of the history-laden property, should it exit the authority of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Under church rules, it is the diocese that owns the property, located adjacent a part of Falls Church where the asking price for some real estate is $20 million an acre, and the local church will face the prospect of eviction.
In a Dec. 1 letter to church officials contemplating splitting from the diocese posted on his website, the Virginia Diocese’s Bishop Peter James Lee commented bluntly, “An attempt to place your congregation and its real and personal property under the authority of any ecclesial body other than the Diocese of Virginia will have repercussions and possible civil liability for individual vestry members.”
He added, “The property of your church is trust property. You are the trustees of this trust and, as such, have a fiduciary duty to protect the property for the benefit of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia. In addition, under applicable civil law the Diocese of Virginia has proprietary and contract rights in the property of your church.”
Moreover, he said, the church’s canons “forbid vestries from alienating, selling, exchanging, encumbering or otherwise transferring any real property” without his OK.
He asserted the diocese would have the legal right “to take charge and custody of the real and personal property and take such steps as may be necessary to transfer the real property or to sell it.”
Falls Church officials, in communications with their congregation, insist that since their church’s existence pre-dates its affiliation with the diocese, a court would find it had a right to hold onto its property. However, a Nov. 28 memo from Yates cautions, “There is always risk in contested lawsuits.”
The church begins voting Sunday and ballots will be available to church members to cast through next week. The voting will be cut off Saturday night, Dec. 16, and the ballot counted. The congregation will be informed of the results at church services Sunday morning, Dec. 17.