It’s been two-and-a-half months since the date he’d originally set for making his ruling, but Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows will rule on the ownership of the Falls Church Episcopal Church and 10 other Church properties this Friday, according to a notification from his law clerk issued to attorneys in the case yesterday.
The dispute stems from the defection of a majority of members of those congregations from the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., in December 2006, and their subsequent claim to the properties of those churches.
“Judge Bellows has asked me to advise you that the Court anticipates it will issue its opinion regarding the applicability of 57-9 this Friday, April 4. It may, however, issue the opinion a day earlier or later,” the notice from Bellows’ clerk stated.
The ruling is expected to be on the first phase of issues to determine ownership of the church properties, pertaining to whether an 1867 Virginia statute (57-9) applies in the current case. A follow-up ruling, which may or may not be included Friday, will speak to whether local parishes are bound contractually by a 1970’s intra-denominational agreement stipulating that all properties in the Episcopal Church, U.S.A., are “held in trust” by the dioceses where they sit.
In the case of The Falls Church, located in the center of the City of Falls Church, in the wake of the December 2006 vote by a majority of members to defect, the defectors under the leadership of their rector, Rev. John Yates, continued to occupy the parish property, reconstituting themselves under the leadership of the right-wing Anglican Bishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria. The on-going occupation includes denying access to the property to “continuing Episcopalian” congregants. The impetus for the defection stemmed from the reaction against the Episcopal Church’s consecration of an openly-gay pastor to standing as a bishop in the denomination in 2003.
This week’s ruling will determine whether the defectors can remain in control of the property, or will be compelled to evacuate it, giving it over to a spirited group of “continuing Episcopalians,” composed of Falls Church congregants who chose not to defect from the denomination.
Those “continuing Episcopalians” formed themselves last year as a veritable “church in exile,” meeting weekly and carrying on the normal activities of a parish from facilities loaned to them by the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, directly across East Broad Street from The Falls Church. Among the regular worshippers at the weekly “continuing Episcopalian” services has been City of Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner.
The “continuing Episcopalians” have claimed the name Falls Church Episcopal Church, as the defectors chose to change their name to the Falls Church Anglican Church.
In their weekly e-mail newsletter, leaders of the “continuing Episcopalians” notified members of the imminent court ruling, urging them to, “please remember this important decision in your prayer time this week.”
The “continuing Episcopalians” were buoyed by the news from Queens County, New York, last week that the county’s Supreme Court ruled entirely in favor of the Episcopal diocese and the national Episcopal Church in a case very similar to Falls Church’s, where a local defecting congregation sued to claim ownership of the church property.
Specifically, the court upheld the contractual agreement between the Episcopal Church and the local church included in the denomination’s Canon I.7(4), the so-called Dennis Canon that stipulates all local parish property “is held in trust” for the Episcopal Church and the diocese.