The dispute between the national Episcopal Church denomination and the 11 Virginia churches, including the historic Falls Church Episcopal, who voted to defect from the denomination in December has now advanced to the stage of official name-calling. An official press release was issued by the defecting churches quoted one of their leaders saying legal action taken by the Episcopal Church last week is “un-Christian.”
The national denomination joined in the legal efforts of its Virginia diocese to secure access to its church properties that continue to be occupied by the defectors. Those defectors, meanwhile, continue to forbid access to the facilities by continuing Episcopalian members.
While the defectors deny this profusely, in reality, this appears a simple case of trespassing. The defectors are surely within their rights to leave the church. People join and cancel memberships in churches all the time, and when a large group agrees to do it together at the same time, it can go off and start a new church or even a new religion. Doing that sort of thing is nothing new. In fact, it is a grand and time-honored tradition within organized religion.
But it is another thing when such a group wants to take someone else’s property along with it. It is straightforward that since 1793 Virginia Episcopal Church canons stipulate that a parish’s property “is held by and for the mission of the church.” Now, the defectors want to undo those rules, which they’d agreed to for years, through the courts, and the Episcopal Church is fighting back. It’s that simple.
How is what the defectors are doing any different than, say, someone who has just quit his job with you walking into your home and occupying your bathroom, claiming it is his and not allowing your or anyone in your family to use it? The Episcopal Church has been pretty meek in allowing its ecclesiastical lavatories, so to speak, to remain occupied by hostile elements. Rather than rousting out the trespassers, growing numbers of continuing Episcopalians have been content for now with holding services like a government in exile across the street.
Rules are rules and the defectors, while having the right to act on their convictions to walk away, should have no expectation of grabbing property that’s not theirs. Moreover, they should have no expectation of staying within the good graces of any element of the national denomination, or, for that matter, of the global Anglican communion. Both the defectors and their new leader, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, run the risk of being bounced out of the global church if for no other reason than that Akinola, himself, violated fundamental church rules by claiming jurisdiction over a region not assigned to him.
The defectors should not cry over this, or assail the denomination for being “un-Christian.” They should expect it and embrace it as the price of maintaining their religious convictions. They shouldn’t let an idolatry of physical possessions or formal titles taint them.