1st Court Ruling After Defections Favors Continuing Episcopalians

Motion to Dismiss Suit Over Property Quashed by Judge

In the first official court ruling concerning the defection from the Virginia Episcopal Diocese by 11 churches last December, a Fairfax Circuit Court judge ruled against dismissal of lawsuits by the diocese and the national Episcopal Church last Friday. It was a victory for the Episcopal Church against the defectors that include a majority of voting members at the historic Falls Church that have continued to occupy that church property.

Still, one important defector, the Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, told his congregation recently that no matter how the court finally rules, it will be years before they will actually have to depart the premises. That’s because of planned lengthy court appeals, he said, even though he conceded that contingency plans are underway. Last week, Yates was among 21 priests in Virginia officially defrocked by the diocese for abandoning the Episcopal Church.

Judge Randy I. Bellows overruled a motion by lawyers representing the defecting congregations to dismiss the suits after a four-hour hearing, moving the process to the next stage, which is expected to be in the form of petitions on the lawsuits in November.

The Virginia diocese and the Episcopal Church are seeking in the suits the recovery of the church properties now occupied by the defectors. “Continuing Episcopalians,” for example, who did not vote to defect, have been banned by the occupying defectors from any formal activity on the Falls Church property.

Almost as banished refugees, the “continuing Episcopalians” have been worshipping and carrying on a full array of church functions using the facilities of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church across the street.

“We are pleased with today’s ruling,” stated Patrick Getlein, secretary of the Diocese of Virginia, last Friday. “There are still individuals and congregations who have been dispossessed and literally locked out of their churches. Their exile continues.”

The 11 defecting congregations represent about 8,000 of the roughly 90,000 Episcopalians in Virginia.

About two hours into Friday’s hearing, the plaintiffs agreed to allow individuals named in the suits to be taken out of the suits “on assurance that those individuals and their successors will be bound by the rulings of the court.”

“The only aim in including these individuals was to make sure the proper parties were before the court so that the relief and remedies we seek could be properly sought and obtained,” Getlein said. “The assurances we received achieves that objective.”

Those whose names were removed included the vestry and rector of each defecting congregation. Trustees remain named in the suits only in their capacity as holders of title.

According to the agreement, if the court eventually rules in favor of the diocese and the national Episcopal Church, an orderly transition with respect to all property would ensue. The Church and the diocese would retain the right, under those circumstances, to seek an accounting of all monies spent by the departed congregations and bring the individual vestry members and clergy back into litigation for that purpose.

That aspect apparently contradicts a memo on the court ruling sent by The Falls Church’s Senior Warden Tom Wilson to members of his defected congregation stating that the church’s vestry members and pastoral leadership “will no longer be named defendants” in diocese and Episcopal Church lawsuits.

Last Friday’s ruling followed by a week the decision by Virginia Diocese Bishop Peter Lee to officially defrock 21 priests who aligned with the defectors, including Yates, who has been the rector at The Falls Church since 1979, and three others from The Falls Church.

Those defrocked priests and their flocks had earlier this year aligned with the Anglican Church of Nigeria under the leadership of Bishop Peter Akinola, an advocate of prison sentences for persons exhibiting any signs of a gay sexual orientation, including the holding of hands. The move by the 11 congregations to defect from the Episcopal Church was spurred, in addition to disagreements over “the authority of the Bible,” by the church’s elevation of an openly-gay priest to standing as a bishop in November 2003.

A statement from the Rev. Frederick Wright of The Falls Church on behalf of the defrocked priests said that the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia had no authority to defrock them, since they’d all already left and aligned with the Nigerian Anglicans. As “they remain Anglican clergy no longer in service of the Episcopal Church,” he said, “the church cannot dispose or remove them from their pulpits.”

James Oakes, also speaking for the defectors, said it was “like trying to fire someone after they quit their job.”

Replying to that, Getlein said yesterday, in the context of the legal fight over control of the church property, “That’s an interesting comment and it occurs to me that trying to take Episcopal Church property after you’ve left the Episcopal Church is like trying to take your office after you quit your job.”  

While the defectors currently occupying the property of The Falls Church concede that the courts may eventually order them to leave, they are confident that won’t happen any time soon.

In his last sermon in July before a six-week hiatus from the pulpit at The Falls Church, Yates told his congregation, “The lawsuit that we’re facing will stretch out over several years, that’s almost certain, but our right to be in this place for the time being has not been challenged.”

He went on, “Now even if we were to lose, we would appeal, and barring something completely unforeseen, it will be years before these controversies are settled.”

Meanwhile, he indicated that contingency plans are being made. “We already have a couple of other daughter churches we’ve begun in the last few years. A third will begin meeting in Alexandria this fall,” Yates reported. “We are working out the details of a church planting partnership now with the Church of Redeemer in New York City, and they are hoping to help us be more effective in developing other campuses and satellite churches here in the beltway.”

Meanwhile, Sunday services of “continuing Episcopalians” at the Falls Church Presbyterian have been drawing up to 100 people every Sunday under the leadership of Bill Fetsch, a former vestryman at The Falls Church who did not vote with some of his former colleagues to defect in December.

            (Nate Taylor contributed to this report).