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Breakaway Witnesses on Stand at Falls Church Property Trial Today

Witnesses for the defendant breakaway congregation of the historic Falls Church were slated to take the witness stand today following the testimony yesterday of a husband and wife team that played a major role in keeping the hopes of “continuing Episcopalians” alive to recover their historic church property downtown in the City of Falls Church.

Witnesses for the defendant breakaway congregation of the historic Falls Church were slated to take the witness stand today following the testimony yesterday of a husband and wife team that played a major role in keeping the hopes of “continuing Episcopalians” alive to recover their historic church property downtown in the City of Falls Church.

What may be the final phase of the years-long, dramatic trial now underway at the Fairfax Circuit Court over the ownership of the church property is not a dispute over religious doctrine or vestry oaths, Judge Randy Bellows reminded the courtroom. It is strictly a matter of legal rights, he said.

When a Civil War-era Virginia law that had been cited earlier to favor the majority of congregants of the church who defected from the Virginia Diocese of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. was ruled unconstitutional by the Virginia Supreme Court, two of the nine breakaway congregations in the state settled their disputes on terms favorable to the Diocese in recent months.

Now, the remaining seven breakaway congregations, aligned with the recently-formed Council of Anglicans in North America (CANA), are persisting in asserting their legal right to occupy the properties, including The Falls Church, they’ve held onto since they broke away from the Episcopal Church in early 2006.

Defendants representing CANA, including from The Falls Church and its close ally, the Truro Church of Fairfax, will take the stand to make their case beginning today. The congregations separated from the wider Episcopal Church largely in protest to the move in November 2003 by the bishops of the Episcopal Church to elevate an openly gay leader to standing as a bishop.

Yesterday, two Falls Church city residents, William and Robin Fetsch, held the witness stand on behalf of the Episcopal diocese and its tenacious band of “continuing Episcopalians” in Falls Church. William Fetsch had been a vestryman at the Falls Church when the vote to defect came in December 2005, and he and Ms. Fetch sided with a minority of loyal churchgoers who voted to stay with the Episcopal diocese.

His long-standing leadership in the church enabled him to assemble many of those who voted against the majority move to defect, starting with meetings in the Fetsch home, and then moving at the hospitality of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church to weekly Sunday services and eventually a full array of church programs in the Presbyterian church’s fellowship hall.

The Fetschs and their co-congregants continued with the church name, the Falls Church Episcopal Church, while the breakaway congregation, which continued to occupy the historic Falls Church property, led by the Rev. John Yates, changed its name to the Falls Church Anglican.

Yesterday, William Fetsch described his leading role at the Falls Church since joining in August 1980. In addition to being on the vestry, he was the chairman of the Building Committee including for the construction and consecration of a new sanctuary in 1992 and plans that were put on hold because of the congregational split to build a large ancillary building adjacent the historic church on now-idled church owned property across Fairfax Drive.

Robin Fetsch testified about her 16 years on the church’s Endowment Fund, and both affirmed that every indication was that building projects and endowment holdings had always been intended not exclusively for the local church, but for the wider Episcopal Church and its mission, as well.

The property “was held in trust for the diocese,” William Fetsch contended. Located in “Region 8” of the diocese, the new 1992 sanctuary was intended to be utilized for wider meetings within that region.

Sarah Bartenstein, a spokesperson for the diocese, reiterated in comments to the News-Press yesterday, “Our goal from the beginning has been to return Episcopalians to their church homes. Episcopalians in Falls Church want very much to be back, and we are working to make this happen.”
Eamonn Rockwell contributed to this report.