Following Tuesday’s court decision to dismiss the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia’s case against the breakaway Truro Church, supporters of the “Continuing Episcopalians” in the City of Falls Church told the News-Press that they remain hopeful, given the major historical and judicial differences between The Falls Church case and Truro, that the court will rule differently for them.
Robin Fetsch, a member of The Falls Church Continuing Episcopalians, which does not recognize the decision of many Falls Church congregants to leave the Episcopal Diocese and join the Anglican Church of Nigeria, said that if the presiding judge, Randy Bellows, does not decide in favor of the diocese, they will appeal.
Judge Bellows convened the court session at 10 a.m. Wednesday to hear the opening arguments and initial testimonies from The Falls Church Anglicans and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
In the latest courtroom battle, the diocese said that The Falls Church Anglican trustees do not have rights to the church property. Attorneys for the diocese argued that there is a deed showing it instead belongs to Episcopal Christ Church in Alexandria.
The two sides sparred over the same paperwork that addressed the property rights of The Falls Church and the church’s relationship with the Episcopal Church of America. More so, they addressed the same pair of 19th century U.S. Supreme Court cases – Terrett vs. Taylor and Mason vs. Muncaster – that dealt with the land rights of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
In a detailed presentation utilizing maps of The Falls Church’s property, previous court decisions and the stipulations of the original land deed, the court session began with an opening statement from attorney Gordon Coffee representing The Falls Church Anglicans. Coffee argued that “there is no question that The Falls Church trustees are the record owners of this parcel.”
The parcel in question, a two-acre lot of land forming the original Falls Church on March 19, 1746, was drafted in a land deed before the Revolutionary War, between the original trustees of The Falls Church and the Episcopal Church’s predecessor, the Church of England.
Coffee pointed out that documents from the deed to the present-day show ownership on the part of Falls Church trustees. “There’s a reason this never occurred to anyone for 184 years,” said Coffee, after he outlined numerous times throughout the 19th and 20th centuries when the Falls Church trustees dealt with the Fairfax Circuit Court and the Supreme Court on matters of church property and mortgages. As a result, Coffee said, it was evident that the trustees are the rightful owners.
Coffee derided attempts by diocese attorneys to challenge The Falls Church’s departure from the Episcopal diocese as failed plans, referring to the latest challenge as “Plan C,” where the diocese would try to establish that Christ Church had authority over The Falls Church. The courts, however, have repeatedly recognized that “The Falls Church is owned and has been owned by the trustees,” said Coffee. “The declaration of judges has been accepted for 150 years.”
Representing the diocese, attorney Brad Davenport argued that The Falls Church must prove that there was a transfer of ownership from the Church of England in pre-revolutionary times to the individual church today. Davenport said, in fact, that there has been no new deed since the original 1746 dedication.
With the post-war divisions and reorganization, the newly-formed Episcopal Church, represented in Virginia by Christ Church, assumed the properties formerly owned by the Church of England, including the property of The Falls Church, Davenport said.
He cited Virginia statutes that stipulated “no estate of inheritance shall be conveyed except by deed,” a process that would have passed ownership from the Church of England to the trustees had another deed been created. Instead, he argued, there has been no new deed since 1746 for The Falls Church, reaffirmed by the 1822 U.S. Supreme Court case Mason vs. Muncaster.
In the landmark case for the Virginian diocese, the Supreme Court found that “the vestry of the Episcopal ‘Church of Alexandria,’ now known by the name of Christ’s Church, is the regular vestry, in succession, of the Parish of Fairfax,” which had been a quasi-political entity dissolved by the revolution.
Davenport mentioned that witnesses for the diocese would corroborate his land right argument, including testimony from Ed Bond, a church historian, who, Davenport said, would show that the property of The Falls Church is a part of the Episcopal Church at Christ’s Church and not a separate entity under the control of Falls Church’s trustees.
Referring to the deed and court documents introduced by Coffee in his opening statement, Davenport also said that Coffee “highlights only what he liked in there,” and that the documents would prove that Christ Church is the rightful property owner of The Falls Church.