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Episcopalian Diocese Files in Court for Removal of Defectors from F.C. Site

F.C. Mayor Robin Gardner Supports Non-Defectors

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia filed papers in court yesterday seeking a restraining order against “further use and occupancy” of the properties it says are falsely claimed by 11 congregations that voted in December to defect from the Episcopal denomination.

A SLICE OF THE WORSHIPPERS attending a service organized by non-defectors from the Falls Church Episcopal Church in the spacious fellowship hall loft of the Falls Church Presbyterian is shown with volunteer pianist James Jelasic (right). City of Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner, herself an Episcopalian, attended the service as a “show of support” for the non-defectors. (News-Press photo)That includes the Falls Church Episcopal, and it means that a court ruling could be imminent requiring defectors under the leadership of the Rev. John Yates there to leave the site or be deemed as trespassing.

Yates, himself, is named as a defendant in the Diocese’s court actions, along with lay leaders of the Falls Church Episcopal and clergy the lay leaders of all 11 defecting congregations.   

Meanwhile, Robin Gardner, mayor of the City of Falls Church, joined a few score Episcopalian worshippers last Sunday morning who gathered in a hall at the Falls Church Presbyterian Church. It marked the third consecutive week of services for members of the Falls Church Episcopal Church, and their friends, who voted not to defect from the mainstream Episcopal denomination.

Once again, a priest assigned by the Episcopal Bishop of Virginia, Peter James Lee, led the service. A key organizer of the group is Bill Fetsch, a former member of the F.C. Episcopal vestry who resigned when 1,200 of the 2,800 members of the historic church, but a clear majority of those who cast ballots, voted in December to break away from their denomination.

As the defectors, who are now aligned with an association led by the Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria, continue to meet at the historic Falls Church Episcopal site under the leadership of the Rev. John Yates, the residual Episcopalians have been invited to gather every week at the F.C. Presbyterian Church, located just a block away.

They await what they hope will be a return to their sanctuary at the historic site, pending a banishment of the Nigerian-led defectors, including Yates, if they don’t soon recant, as Bishop Lee has resolved.

A fight over the control of the church property is now underway in the courts. Bishop Lee has issued strong statements in the last two weeks not only claiming control over the property, but threatening the defrocking of all 21 priests in collusion with the split from the denomination by a total of 11 churches in Virginia.

Yesterday, Bishop Lee filed official court papers in the jurisdictions covering all 11 churches, seeking that the local churches’ claims to the property are improper, an order upholding the Diocese’s rights to the property and a restraining order against “further use and occupancy of the property by the separated congregations.”

In a statement released to the press following the filings, the Diocese added, “The clergy in charge and lay leadership of each of the 11 congregations have been named as defendants in the actions. The Diocese is not asking the courts to impose any personal liability on any of the individual named defendants at this time.”

Following Sunday’s service, Mayor  Gardner said, “I am what I am, an Episcopalian through and through.” Although not a member of the Falls Church Episcopal, she said she attended Sunday’s service as a “show of support” to those who chose not to defect.

Another Falls Church resident, James Jelasic, said the only reason he was not a member of the Falls Church Episcopal was its history of arch-conservatism, contrary to the mainstream Episcopal current. He said that for that reason, he’d joined another Episcopal church in Alexandria.

But he showed up for the service of the Falls Church non-defectors Sunday, saying he was thankful to the News-Press for having reported the time and place of the gathering.

Seeing the group lacked a pianist, and with a piano handy in the sizeable loft above the Presbyterian church’s new fellowship hall, he offered his services on the spot. He accompanied the hymns, as well as providing impromptu pre and postludes. An entertainer himself, Jelasic runs Black Tie Entertainment, a company that provides acts of all types for rental to private and corporate parties and events.

The Episcopalian service ended about the same time as the Presbyterians’ in their main sanctuary, and parishioners from the two groups gathered together in the fellowship hall for coffee, soft drinks and snacks.

There were a lot of familiar faces, as folks from both groups knew each other from their shared experiences in the local PTAs and other activities.

 “We had many people who came to our service for the first time this week,” said one member of the non-defecting Episcopalians. That was confirmed by a number of local residents who approached the News-Press reporter during the fellowship hour to thank the paper for publicizing the time and place of the service.

Fetsch and his wife Robin purchased an ad in this week’s News-Press with more information about their weekly services that will continue at the F.C. Presbyterian Church location, 225 E. Broad St., Sundays at 11:15 a.m.

Meanwhile, the News-Press has learned of some dissention among the ranks of those Falls Church Episcopal members who voted to defect, claiming they’d been led to believe they were only choosing an alternative, more conservative leadership within the denomination, and that the denomination’s leadership would cooperate with their wishes to continue as usual at their current location. “We were brainwashed,” one such person was reported saying.

More is also coming to light about the roots of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola’s violation of the Anglican rules and traditions by claiming authority over elements of the denomination outside his jurisdiction. The Anglican Communion office in London has issued a terse statement saying Akinola’s U.S. group, calling itself the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), had not been granted “any official status within the communion’s structures, nor has the archbishop of Canterbury indicated any support for its establishment.”

According to 2003 and 2004 reports in the New York Times and the Tribune Newspaper of Nigeria, Akinola reacted forcefully against the elevation of the openly-gay U.S. bishop Gene Robinson in November 2003, and set up his U.S. organization in July 2004 as a specific reaction to it.

According to the Tribune, Akinola resolved to inaugurate an American diocese “to effectively cut off Nigerians from gay bishops in the United States,” saying he “cannot do the work of God with gay clergymen.” He called it “the Convocation of Anglican Nigerian Churches in America.”

Getting his foot in the door in the U.S. by claiming to represent only Nigerians, Akinola subsequently morphed his organization into CANA, a receptacle for dozens of defecting U.S. churches with no relationship to Nigeria.    

At the time of the Robinson consecration, Akinola’s Nigerian Anglican Church had strong things to say, as well. “We totally reject and renounce this obnoxious attitude and behavior,” the church said in a statement, according to the New York Times. “It is devilish and satanic. It comes directly from the pit of hell. It is an idea sponsored by Satan himself and being executed by his followers and adherents who have infiltrated the church.”

  (Ed. Note — The News-Press inadvertently misspelled the Fetschs’ name last week and apologizes for the error).