Yates Takes Stand in Church Property Trial

The Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, took the witness stand late yesterday in the Fairfax Circuit Court trial to establish who owns the church property and that of 11 other former Episcopal congregations in Virginia with a combined estimated value of $30 million.

Yates spearheaded a vote by a majority of members of The Falls Church last December to formally leave the Episcopal Church, USA and re-align with other defecting congregations to form an entity known as the Council of Anglicans in North America (CANA). The defection process was set in motion following the Episcopal Church, USA General Convention in November 2003 in reaction to the vote of bishops there to consecrate an openly-gay clergyman as a bishop.

Since last December’s defection vote, Yates’ followers at The Falls Church have retained control of the historic church property in the center of the City of Falls Church, rebuffing attempts by members of the church who did not align with Yates to share the facilities as “continuing Episcopalians.”

Meanwhile, with de facto control if that property, 11 of the 15 Virginia congregations who followed suit with the defectors at The Falls Church filed in court last winter for formal protection under an 1867 Virginia Religious Freedom Act to establish their right to take the church property from the Episcopal Church.

The trial began in the courtroom of Judge Randy I. Bellows in Fairfax last Tuesday. The first two days of the trial, attorneys for the Anglican defectors put the first waves of 17 total witnesses onto the stand, including church scholars and leaders, such as Yates and CANA’s head bishop, the Rev. Martyn Minns of the Truro Church in Fairfax, on the stand.

The case for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia will not commence possibly until Monday. Original plans for Virginia Bishop J. Peter Lee to testify tomorrow have been delayed by the slow progress in the trial so far, and there will be no court on Friday. The trial is expect to run to Nov. 21, and Judge Bellows has said he will provide his ruling at some point in December.

In particular, Judge Bellows is being asked to rule on the single word, “division,” and its intended meaning in the 1867 law. The law was enacted after the Civil War when divisions among Protestant denominations were rampant over issues of slavery and race.

According to the wording of the law, if what the defectors voted to do constituted a “division” in the denomination, then they are entitled to the property. On the other hand, the Episcopal Diocese has argued all along that under the canon law of its denomination, “division” can occur only if the diocese consents. Its argument is simply that the defectors decided to leave the church and therefore have to right to the church’s property.

It was noted in a communiqué from the Virginia Diocese that the defectors not only held onto the properties but “refused repeated requests by the remaining Episcopalians to use Episcopal Church property,” and “to make matters worse, attorneys for the dissidents sent a letter to Bishop Lee threatening action against any diocesan officials who ‘set foot on’ or ‘trespass’ on the property occupied by the CANA congregations.”

Attorneys representing the CANA churches chose two witnesses to put on the stand Tuesday that sought to establish a history of 27 applications of the 1867 law up through 1890 when defections were routinely recognized as “divisions.” 

The general criteria in those cases were a sufficient number of defectors and a separate polity for a new church, including the renunciation of the original church in the process, testified Professors Mark Valori and Charles Frederick Irons.

Yesterday, CANA called Minns, Yates and others to describe communications between the defector congregations and the Episcopal Diocese over the last year that included the diocese’s own use of the term, “division.”

Minns also presented his account of events, beginning with the 2003 General Convention, leading up to the decision by the congregations to defect.

While CANA submitted 174 documents and the names of 17 witnesses, the Virginia Diocese has filed 67 documents and will call 19 witnesses, beginning with Lee.

Meanwhile, Yates and other leaders of the defecting congregation at The Falls Church are calling on their followers to “pray thoughtfully, passionately, persistently and with others” about the trial “in which we seek to defend our decision both to leave the Episcopal Church and to remain in ownership of this property.” The statement says that while “we can pray with confidence and assurance,” it is with “the realization that we are in a time of spiritual war. God is doing new things and these things are not unopposed. There are casualties in any war. There are battles won and battles lost.”

In Yates’ weekly message to his congregation in its newsletter, he stated that with the trial underway, “It is a quite serious time for us all. – this is the first installment of the first aspect of this trial. It will likely stretch out over a long time.”