National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: The Sad Case of The Falls Church

It is sad that it has come to this. Millions of dollars were raised earlier this decade from the congregation of the Falls Church Episcopal Church in Falls Church, Virginia, toward an $18 million goal to build a new “parish life center” for education and fellowship on property acquired by the church in 1999.

Now, contributors of those funds are being asked to redirect their use for a legal defense of those in the congregation who voted to defect from the Episcopal Church, USA, in December 2006 to continue occupying the historic, existing church site, while veritably banishing from it the “continuing Episcopalian” members of the original congregation.

The lawsuits over the control of the church property, and that of other sites in Virginia where anti-Episcopalian defectors have taken control, are now advancing toward the Virginia Supreme Court, with papers filed this week. Beyond that, no matter what the ruling there, the case will almost certainly be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, as it is a matter of grave importance to the viability of the internal structures of almost all mainstream Protestant denominations nationally.

But what’s particularly poignant and sad about the Falls Church case at this juncture is how clearly the uncontained roiling up of the flames of hate have consumed and destroyed the dreams of an entire congregation for a safe, new place for nurturing learning and love.

The whole matter of the defection movement in the Episcopal Church was fueled by a raw antipathy toward the elevation of the national denomination’s first openly-gay bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson, in 2003. That has not only caused friends to turn on friends in many local congregations, including Falls Church, but led the defector groups into the hands of a viciously bigoted, anti-homosexual Nigerian Anglican bishop.

Of course, homosexuality is not the only fixation of this group, composed in the case of the Falls Church of Bush administration officials and their admirers who decided a decade ago they’d flock from far and wide to attend there. Discredited former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, neo-conservative Sarah Palin-lovers like Fred Barnes, and former Bush speechwriter cum Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson are a few among such loyalists there.

Gerson’s latest gem was his call during a Meet the Press appearance last Sunday for the Obama administration to follow the example of President Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controller strike of 1981 in his handling of the auto industry situation.

So, admittedly, these people have a full menu of unsavory ideas and attitudes that add fuel to their burning elitist passions.

It is truly a symbolic coup de grace of the abject depravity of such values that the admission comes from these folks that the money raised for their “parish life center” is now needed, instead, for a legal defense of their actions to split the Episcopal Church.

This includes money that was raised from those who are on the other side of the lawsuit, who chose to remain loyal to the Episcopal Church, but whose contributions to the “parish life center” will be used against them.

It is also a fitting irony that, in the same week this is done, Vermont became the second state in the union to legalize gay marriage, the beginning of a cascading process that will eventually apply the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence Vs. Texas in 2003 prohibiting discrimination against any “class of persons,” including gays and lesbians, throughout the land.

This writer reported extensively in the Falls Church News-Press on the plans first unveiled in 1999 for the “parish life center” at the Falls Church Episcopal.

Having purchased the Southgate Shopping Center site, an older small strip mall across the street from the existing church sanctuary, and expelling eight functioning businesses from it, the already-arrogant church tried to convince the Falls Church City Council that it should convey the street between the sanctuary and Southgate to it, to allow one large campus, in flagrant violation of the separation of church and state.

Failing, it failed again to make the street narrow and one-way, ignoring the needs of hundreds of residents who also lived on it. But countless hours of City Hall time and resources spent, and eight tax-paying businesses lost, the effort stalled when the push to split the church began in earnest in 2004. Now it is officially over with the call this week to redeploy the church funds to legal defense.