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F.C. Episcopal Votes to Defect, But Who Now Gets to Keep the Land?

Bishop Defers to Those Staying In Denomination

The Falls Church Episcopal Church and its 2,800 members, who worship at facilities that include a 1700s-era chapel in the heart of the City of Falls Church, made front page headlines globally this week by voting overwhelmingly to formally defect from the national Episcopal denomination. It joined eight other churches in Virginia that all left the denomination after congregational voting concluded on Sunday.

The multiple-church exodus was precipitated by the wide-majority vote of bishops of the 2.2-million member national denomination in 2003 to elevate the openly-gay Rev. V. Gene Robinson to standing as the bishop of New Hampshire.

In a subsequent statement, the Bishop Peter James Lee of the Diocese of Virginia vowed to act in support of those members of the church who did not vote to defect and want to remain Episcopalians.

Important questions arising from last weekend’s vote remain to be answered. One pertains to whether or not the current congregation, under its current leadership, will stay at its current location, or will be required by the Diocese of Virginia to vacate it. Another pertains to the nature of the new over-arching association, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), that the congregation chosen to align with. CANA is a subordinate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, whose archbishop advocates the criminalization of homosexual activity and a diminished role for women in the church.

As expected, the vote was not even close at the Falls Church Episcopal. It was 1,228 to 127 to leave the denomination. A second ballot question, on whether or not the congregation should fight control the historic property, passed by an even wider margin of 1,279 to 77.

The conditions are set for what could be a contentious legal tangle, although defecting members of The Falls Church hope the Virginia Diocese, and its head, Bishop Lee, will offer a way for the them to remain where they are. However, there appeared to be little evidence to support that hope.

In a tough-worded letter dated Dec. 1, Bishop Lee stated unequivocally, “Our polity maintains that all real and personal property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church and the diocese. As stewards of this historic trust, we fully intend to assert the church’s canonical and legal rights over these properties.”

Bishop Lee added that he retained the authority, under the current conditions, to declare the Falls Church Episcopal a “mission,” placing it under an effective receivership managed by the bishop, himself. He could then appoint a new rector to take over the operation of the church and its property.

After the voting was announced, however, the Diocese of Virginia issued a statement on Monday “authorizing a standstill agreement with those who have chosen to leave to avoid litigation for a period of 30 days.” Under that arrangement, according to the diocese, “both sides have agreed not to initiate any litigation” during that period and “the departing members have agreed not to attempt to transfer church property.”

In addition, according to a diocese statement, the diocese’s executive board and standing committee “have authorized the bishop to explore all options with the Episcopalians who remain and take appropriate actions for their support and full participation in the life of the diocese.”

The diocese statement, as expected, tilts entirely toward support for Episcopalian members who did not defect. That includes 187 remaining congregations in Virginia that did not follow the path of the eight that defected. They account for 82,000 members, by contrast to the 8,000 in the congregations that left.

In particular, the statement focused on “the Episcopalians who remain in each church where the majority membership has decided to leave,” saying, “The dioceses will support those members as the continuation of the Episcopal Church in their communities.”

Members who voted to defect, therefore, had little to take comfort from in the diocese statement, other than from the temporary 30-day “cease-fire” agreement.

In fact, the statement suggests the diocese will work overtime to ensure that its members who did not vote to defect at The Falls Church Episcopal will have full access to its facilities.

The defecting members of The Falls Church Episcopal, on the other hand, will align with CANA, which is the arm of the Anglican Diocese of Nigeria, headed by Archbishop Peter J. Akinola. Rector Martin Minns of the Truro Church in Fairfax City, which also voted itself out of the Episcopal church last week, was appointed by Akinola as the head of CANA and its approximately 25 U.S. congregations.

Akinola is a hard-liner opposing same-sex relationships in Nigeria. Last February Akinola issued a statement on behalf of his Church of Nigeria Standing Committee stating, “The church commends the law-makers (in Nigeria) for their prompt reaction to outlaw same-sex relationships in Nigeria and calls for the bill to be passed.”

The bill in question criminalized same-sex relationships and also registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, as well as “publicity, procession and public show of same-sex amorous relationships through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise,” with a penalty of up to five years imprisonment.

The proposed legislation was formally challenged by the U.S. State Department as a “possible breach of Nigeria’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”