A leading spokesman for the 11 Virginia Episcopal churches whose majorities of members voted to depart the larger denomination in December called the move last week by the national Episcopal body to sue for control of the churches’ properties “un-Christian.”
“This is not surprising, but sadly un-Christian and heavy-handed,” declared Tom Wilson, senior warden of the Falls Church Episcopal Church, one of the 11 that defected. The statement was in the first paragraph of a press release reacting to the lawsuit issued by Jim Pierobon, the defectors’ principle liaison to the media.
The national church joined the legal action taken earlier by its diocese of Richmond seeking an immediate injunction to force the defectors off the church properties.
A 20-page complaint was filed in the County of Fairfax last Friday. On behalf of the Episcopal Church, as plaintiff, it names as defendants the former clergy and vestry members of the 11 parishes and missions, as well as trustees who technically hold title to the real property of some of the parishes.
The complaint states that not only have the defectors, upon leaving the Episcopal Church, held onto the church properties where they’d worshipped, but they’ve prevented continuing Episcopalians from access to them and are “continuing to divert the parishes’ funds from the mission of the Episcopal Church.”
According to an Episcopal Church statement, “the complaint names the parishes as defendants ‘because their real and personal property and affairs are currently under the de facto control of individuals who claim the right to sever the link between the parties and the diocese and the Episcopal Church, to divert the parishes’ real and personal property for their own use in affiliation with another denomination outside the United States, and to exclude the parishes’ faithful Episcopalian members for use and control of that property.”
It goes on, “The clergy and vestry are named because they have left the Episcopal Church, yet continue to exercise control over the real and personal property of the congregation.”
The reaction from the defecting members cites the Episcopal Church’s “disrespect for Scripture” as “what drove the 11 congregations to join a growing movement of orthodox Christians to strengthen ties with the Anglican Communion, ties that are separate from the Episcopal Church.”
Observers both inside and outside the churches acknowledge, however, that it was in specific reaction against the elevation of an openly-gay clergyman to standing as a bishop in the denomination that precipitated the move of the 11 churches to formally defect. The defectors’ new affiliation, the Convocation of Anglicans in North America that answers to a Nigerian archbishop, not only condemns homosexuality, but also women in the priesthood. It maintains not only “respect” for the Bible, but asserts its strict inerrancy.
While the Episcopal denomination and its Virginia diocese await the court’s response to its petition for a restraining order requiring the removal of the defectors from the church properties in question, in Falls Church continuing Episcopalian members continue to gather every Sunday across the street, at the Falls Church Presbyterian Church that has welcomed them.
They continue to meet at the Fellowship Hall in the church, 225 E. Broad St., at 11:15 a.m. and carry on other congregational activities. This Sunday night starting at 5 p.m., for example, the members will celebrate a traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake dinner at the home of Bill and Robin Fetsch in Sleepy Hollow. Those wishing to attend can call (703) 532-8818 for directions.
Also, the pastor of the F.C. Presbyterian, the Rev. Tom Schmid, has invited the group to use the main sanctuary of his church for an Ash Wednesday service next Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 6 p.m.