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Battle Between Episcopal Church and Defectors Comes to Trial

The almost five-year legal conflict between the Episcopal Church in the U.S. (ECUSA) and breakaway congregations affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) began its latest phase in the Fairfax County Circuit Court Monday. It may be the final chapter in the battle, among other things, over the historic Falls Church property.

The almost five-year legal conflict between the Episcopal Church in the U.S. (ECUSA) and breakaway congregations affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) began its latest phase in the Fairfax County Circuit Court Monday. It may be the final chapter in the battle, among other things, over the historic Falls Church property.

The opening statements between the two sides (totaling more than 20 lawyers between them) were made in front of Judge Randy I. Bellows. Elaine Cassel, one of the lawyers representing the ECUSA, argued that a previous ruling supporting the ECUSA’s ownership of the property was correct because it was “reasonable to assume the organization was united to the higher [church] authority” and that the congregation was bound to the general church rule and would need to seek approval before separating.

The lawyers for CANA, representing nine breakaway congregations in Virginia, responded with a lengthy and detailed explanation of why the ECUSA claim to the property was not legitimate according to both the church’s constitution and Virginia law, arguing that the wider diocese did not have possession of the building and were simply using the word Episcopal as a “magic talisman” to grant them rights over any building with the word in it, violating, they claimed, Virginia code 57-7.1 and Green V. Lewis.

The suit between the ECUSA and CANA goes back to December of 2006, when the congregation of The Falls Church voted 1221 to 127 to disaffiliate from the ECUSA, mainly due to the ECUSA’s decision to ordain women (the first female priests were ordained in 1977 and the first female bishop was consecrated in 1989) and to allow homosexuals to become priests and bishops (the first openly homosexual priest was ordained in 1977 and the first openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, was elected in 2003.)

Another eight other congregations left the larger Episcopal Church in 2006 as well, with one group, the Church of the Word, only recently reaching a settlement with the larger Episcopal diocese. Judge Bellows stated that the settlement had the possibility of having an effect on the case at hand and noted that he would need to see the official settlement papers between the two groups which are currently being finalized and signed.

After the split in 2006, The Falls Church location became the focal point between two groups claiming rights to the historic building on S. Washington Street in the center of Falls Church.

While the larger issue of other properties involved in the split are going to be decided in this case as well, the issue of The Falls Church could be brought up later this week. However, with all of the evidence awaiting presentation and with witnesses yet to come forward, neither the extent or outcome of the trial are near as yet determined.

 

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