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Va. Supreme Court Overturns Pro-Church Defector Ruling

episcopalservicePAPERIn a stunning development last week, 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.

In a stunning development last week, 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.

Rulings 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 after the ruling was announced last Thursday morning, Henry D. W. Burt, chief of staff, stated that the Diocese “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.”

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MEMBERS OF FALLS CHURCH’S “continuing Episcopalian” congregation gathered last Thursday night to celebrate the Virginia Supreme Court ruling that overturned a lower court finding in favor of a breakaway group’s right to occupy The Falls Church. (Photo: News-Press)

Falls Church’s “continuing Episcopalians” issued a statement later in the day, 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 move 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.”

Reacting to the ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court last week, the Rev. John Yates, leader of the breakaway congregation at The Falls Church, sent a letter to his followers upon a report of the decision, calling it “a very disappointing result, to be sure.” He added that by having the case remanded to the Fairfax Circuit Court where “the Episcopal Church and the Diocese must still carry the burden of showing, apart from the division statute (which the Supreme Court ruled did not apply in this case ed.) that they are the rightful owners of this property.”

Yates prepared a message to appear in the bulletin for his congregation’s Sunday service that was forwarded to the News-Press yesterday. It states, concerning the “continuing Episcopalians'” request for use of the historic church facilities for worship, “When they asked us to be given exclusive use of the historic church and several classrooms between 9 and 11 a.m. on Sundays, we told them the space was already in use. When some of these folks have asked to use the historic church for funerals, we have agreed.”

Yates added that despite the differences between his breakaway CANA-affiliated group and the “continuing Episcopalians,” “This does not mean that we cannot respect each other’s various viewpoints or be friends. But neither can we gloss over our differences,” citing “major doctrinal differences.”

Sarah Allen, spokesman for all nine breakaway CANA congregations named in the Virginia lawsuit, yesterday issued a Q and A document spelling out her group’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision.

She stated, “This is halftime, and the other team just tied up the score,” noting last week’s was “one legal ruling of many in this long litigation process. We are disappointed that we will be forced to continue to defend ourselves in court.”

She added, “The court’s ruling simply addressed one of our statutory defenses…There are a number of other issues to be addressed…We continue to be confident in our legal position.”

She gave a different answer than Yates on the issue of allowing the “continuing Episcopalians” access to the church property to worship, however. “We have consistently communicated our willingness to discuss requests for shared use of our facilities in the context of an overall resolution of the entire dispute,” she wrote. “But without such a comprehensive resolution, any regular or ongoing shared use will result in significant practical and legal confusion and will make it more difficult for the Fairfax Circuit Court to resolve the lawsuits.”

But clearly jubilant as the result of last week’s decision, the “continuing Episcopalians” congregation assembled to celebrate the Supreme Court decision hours after it was announced. Hymns were sung at the Thursday night meeting, prayers were recited and members of the tight-knit group were invited by the Rev. Pipkin to “tell their stories” of their part in the over three years of maintaining their cohesion in face of an “exile” from their home church. As usual, the group met in the fellowship hall of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, located across E. Broad Street from The Falls Church.

The congregants expressed hope and optimism that they’ll regain access to the property, which they contend has been denied them by the occupying Yates breakaway group.

The service was attended by loyal F.C. “continuing Episcopalian” members Falls Church Mayor Robin Gardner and former Superintendent of Falls Church Schools Dr. Warren Pace and their respective spouses. Founding member of the Falls Church School System Jesse Thackrey is also a member of the group, but was not at that meeting.

“We’ve been trying to contain our joy (about today’s Supreme Court ruling),” Pipkin told the congregation, “As we understand the hurt being felt across the street today. But our joy is real, as our call for justice has been real…This day means what we’ve been saying all along about who God is and what he wants us to be is not crazy. We’ve been doing the right thing and I am proud as I can be,” he said.

Bill Fetsch, chief warden of the congregation, said that there was a “silver lining” to the three-and-a-half years of sustaining the group in the face of its “exile.” “It’s taken a long time, but over the course of that time, we’ve honed our community and our mission,” he said, adding that he is “very optimistic” that “we’re on the road back, and it feels real good.”

Another congregant said he’d been active at the The Falls Church, playing a leadership role in a number of its programs, until he “came out” and announced that he was gay. “I was then asked to step down from everything I was doing and I left the church.” That was prior to the schism, and he was away from the church, didn’t even know the split occurred, until he read in the Falls Church News-Press about the ongoing organization of the F.C. “continuing Episcopalians.” He came, joined and proclaimed, “This is a very happy day for me.”

A life-long Episcopalian attending a church in Arlington, Mayor Gardner said that when she learned of the on-going commitment of the F.C. “continuing Episcopalians,” she, her husband Mike and their two children came to align with them. “We’ve been here to support them and have found a very warm family here,” she said. “I’m glad we’re all here tonight together.”

Others spoke to the special warmth and affirmation they felt from the small congregation. “Don’t forget this journey we’ve been on,” one said. “You are far more than what you’ve left behind. You are very different in very fine ways.” Another said, “We are a people willing to risk loving and standing for something.” Another said she knew of people who aligned with the defectors because they may not have agreed with them, but because they didn’t want to leave their place of worship.

The F.C. “continuing Episcopalians,” she said, “on the other hand, are people with the courage of their convictions to get outside their comfort zone.” Pipkin concluded the remarks by saying that, going forward, “We will continue to hold onto who we are. If going home (to the historic church) means that we lose our integrity and undermine our own humanity in the process, then I say we shouldn’t go. But we can be wonderfully proud of what we’ve become by holding onto our hope, values and integrity to be a light to this Falls Church community, to the Episcopal Church overall and the Christian community far and wide.”