The final phase begins Tuesday of a three-stage, year-long trial to determine whether the property of the historic Falls Church downtown in the City of Falls Church is owned by members of its congregation who voted in December 2006 to defect from the Episcopal Church, or owned by the national denomination’s Virginia Diocese.
The News-Press has learned that the diocese will focus its case next week on documents, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1824, deeding two acres of the historic property to the Christ Episcopal Church of Alexandria, which remains affiliated with the Episcopal denomination.
According to members of the Falls Church who voted not to leave the denomination, and who’ve continued to worship and operate church functions as a congregation of “Continuing Episcopalians,” a good case documenting irregularities in the December 2006 congregational vote will not be presented in the trial next week.
“Lawyers for the diocese feel they have a very strong case on the matter of the 18th century deed to the land,” Robin Fetsch told the News-Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday, “So, they chose not to bring the voting irregularities issue into it.”
But, she said, flaws in the voting have been documented, and remain a great bone of contention for many who’d been aligned with the church for decades, but whose votes were not counted when the majority that were permitted to vote decided to leave the Episcopal Church.
For the majority that defected, and subsequently aligned with the newly-formed Council of Anglicans in North America (CANA) led by the right-wing Archibishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the Episcopal denomination’s elevation of an openly-gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, to status as a bishop in 2003 was instrumental in their decision to leave.
But while they left the Episcopal denomination, they did not leave the church property, and have continued to occupy it while the protracted court proceedings have been played out in the courtroom of Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows.
Those who did not defect have been banned by the defectors from worshiping on the historic property, but continued to function as an Episcopal denomination, benefiting from worship, fellowship and classroom space offered them by the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, located across the street.
They formed a vestry, were provided a priest by the Virginia diocese and have grown their congregation since the split occurred.
Some among these “Continuing Episcopalians” were long-standing members of the Falls Church, dating back before 1980, when the Rev. John Yates first came to the church.
Two such members, Fetsch and Dail Turner, meeting with the News-Press Tuesday, detailed their view of irregularities in the vote to defect and, before that, of how the church was molded by Yates over years to engineer the defection, including by encouraging membership by non-Episcopalians from throughout the region who shared his increasingly right-wing views.
They said that, based on depositions of leading members of the “Continuing Episcopalians” by attorneys for the defectors, they anticipate the defectors will try to convince Judge Bellows that the “Continuing Episcopalians” do not constitute a truly functioning church. “But we have done everything in keeping with a true church within the Episcopal denomination,” one told the News-Press. Among their members is the mayor of the City of Falls Church, Robin Gardner.
They have assumed the name, Falls Church Episcopal Church, while the defectors adopted the name, Falls Church Anglican Church.
Fetsch and Turner took strong exception to a comment by the Rev. Yates in a letter to his defector membership that the voting in December 2006 “fully satisfied the voting requirements of Virginia Statute 57-9(A), that the votes were fairly taken.”
They noted the Virginia code requires such a vote of division to achieve, in its own language, “a majority of the whole number” to determine how the congregation will align.
This was acknowledged prior to the vote by Yates, they claim, in a letter to his congregation dated Dec. 7, 2006, when he wrote, “I cannot overstate the importance of your participating in this vote. Virginia law requires a strong voter turnout in such church decisions. Not voting is equivalent to voting to remain in the denomination.”
In accordance with the statute, they note, the number that voted to defect was officially reported as 1,221. But in December 2005, the church’s annual report listed its membership as 2,836 and in May 2006, its mandated annual Parochial Report to the Diocese listed membership at 2,484. Therefore, by either membership count, the number who voted to defect was less than a “majority of the whole number.”
They added that many long-standing members of the church were not allowed to officially vote, but told to complete so-called “provisional ballots,” more than 200 of which were cast, but none of which were counted in the reported vote count.
Turner said that neither he nor his wife, members for more than 15 years, were allowed to vote, and Fetsch added that her son, who was both baptized and married in the church, was not allowed to vote, either.
That’s because, it was explained to them, “membership” was defined as, for purposes of the vote, not only being baptized, but having received communion three times in the past year in that specific church.
So many church members either did not vote, or their votes were not counted, that instead of Yates’ claim in the church’s 2006 annual report that “90 percent of our church family strongly supported this decision,” the actuality was that “30 percent of the church family did so,” Turner said.
Fetsch joined the church in 1980 with her husband, Bill, who was on the vestry there, but resigned when the vote to defect was declared as passed. He is now the senior warden of the “Continuing Episcopalian” church.
She said she noticed Yates “discernibly change” his message, bringing more conservative political themes into his sermons in the mid-1990s. They took a distinctively anti-President Clinton tone and became more politically pronounced as the Bush administration came into power in 2001. “Things became more morally ‘black and white’ in his sermons,” Fetsch said, long before the issue of the gay bishop erupted in November 2003.
Meanwhile, noted Bush administration associates and fellow travelers such as Alberto Gonzales, Porter Goss, Michael Gerson and Fred Barnes flocked to the church, along with many political conservatives from around Northern Virginia. Over 80 percent of the membership comes from those circles, she claimed, adding that only 15 to 18 percent have real Episcopalian roots.
“Yates began in his sermons to constantly criticize and denounce the Episcopal denomination,” she said. “The Episcopal ‘brand’ became a negative in his view, and he was relentless saying so.” Over time, she said, many in the congregation went along with his view.