Virginia Supreme Court Reverses Lower Court Decision On Episcopal Church Dispute

In a stunning development this morning, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a decision reversing a lower court ruling that favored the ability of breakaway congregations to occupy Episcopal Church properties. The ruling will have profound consequences for occupancy of the historic Falls Church in the downtown of the City of Falls Church.

Since the vote by a majority of congregants of the Falls Church in 2006 to join the Rev. John Yates and to defect from the Episcopal Church denomination, the Falls Church has been occupied by Yates and his followers, who subsequently aligned with a group of like-minded defectors known as CANA (Council of Anglicans in North America). Those members of the Falls Church who did not align with the defectors were denied access to the church property, and held their allegiance to the wider Episcopal communion while being forced to worship off-site as guests of the nearby Falls Church Presbyterian Church.

Rulngs by the Fairfax Circuit Court upheld that arrangement, granting the defectors the right to occupy the Falls Church, and other churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia where similar events had occurred. The lower court decision was based on an interpretation of a Civil War era so-called 57-9 statute in the state code. The move to defect by the breakaway congregants was due in part to their opposition to the national Episcopal Church’s decision to elevate an openly gay clergyman to standing as a bishop of the denomination in 2003.

Now, however, the Virginia Supreme Court has overturned that lower court ruling and remanded the matter back to the lower court for further consideration.

In a statement from the Diocese of Virginia headquarters in Richmond this morning, issued by Henry D. W. Burt, chief of staff, the Diocese said it “is gratified by the Supreme Court of Virginia’s ruling that the 57-9 ‘Division Statute’ was incorrectly applied by the Fairfax County Circuit Court. The statute has forced faithful Episcopalians to worship elsewhere for over three years. The Supreme Court has sent the matter back to the lower court for further proceedings. The Diocese will demonstrate that the property is held in truth for all 80,000 Episcopalians who worship in Virginia.”

“This decision brings us one important step closer to returning loyal Episcopalians, who have been extraordinarily faithful in disheartening and difficult circumstances, to their church homes,” said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Bishop of Virginia. “We are extremely grateful for this opportunity to correct a grievous harm. The Episcopal Church has and will continue to stand by its people, its traditions and its legacy — past and future. We look forward to resolving this matter as quickly as possible and bringing our faithful brothers and sisters back to their home churches.”

Burt added, “In light of this decision and its clear implications, I hope the leadership of CANA will now provide access for the continuing Episcopal congregations to worship as Episcopalians at their home churches during this interim period.”

The congregation of “continuing Episcopalians” from the Falls Church have scheduled a meeting for tonight at the Falls Church Presbyterian to discuss the Supreme Court decision and its implications.

Falls Church’s “continuing Episcopalians” issued a statement this morning, having reclaimed the title of “The Falls Church (Episcopal)” for the first time in over three years, from their priest-in-charge, the Rev. Michael Pipkin, stating, “We are grateful for all who have walked with us on this journey and encouraged us to remain hopeful. We believe that the Virginia Supreme Court has heard our cry for help and has responded justly. We pray that the leadership of CANA will now provide us access to worship in our historic home during this interim period, and as we more forward in resolving whatever issues remain, we encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ to join with us and continue the work of the Gospel that began in this place in 1732. The Falls Church (Episcopal) has always been, is now, and always will be a place where we obey the Gospel of Jesus Christ by caring for those in need, by being a welcoming and inclusive community, and by sharing God’s love throughout God’s very good creation.”