Tuesday night, the Fairfax Circuit Court issued its ruling in favor of the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church in litigation seeking to recover Episcopal church property, according to a report from the Diocese of Virginia. “Our goal throughout this litigation has been to return faithful Episcopalians to their church homes and Episcopal properties to the mission of the Church,” said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia.
The court ruled that the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia have “a contractual and proprietary interest” in each of the properties subject to the litigation. The court ordered that all property subject to its ruling be turned over to the Diocese.
“We hope that this ruling will lead to our congregations returning to worship in their church homes in the near future, while finding a way to support the CANA congregations as they plan their transition,” said Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the Diocese and chief of staff.
Bishop Johnston added, “While we are grateful for the decision in our favor, we remain mindful of the toll this litigation has taken on all parties involved, and we continue to pray for all affected by the litigation.”
The decision had enormous consequences for the historic Falls Church located in downtown City of Falls Church. Since the congregation there voted in December 2005 to defect from the Episcopal Church, USA, and align with the new Council of Anglicans in North America (CANA) under the leadership of a Nigerian Anglican Bishop, the breakaway group led locally by the Rev. John Yates has continued to occupy the church property, being unwilling in the process to share it with those traditional Episcopalian members of the original congregation who did not vote to defect.
The traditional Episcopalians were forced to revert to worshiping across the street in the loft of the fellowship hall of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, but remaining faithful as “continuing Episcopalians” over the years. Based on today’s court decision, the breakaway group must now relinquish control of the property and sanctuaries of the historic Falls Church to the “continuing Episcopalian” congregation. It is not known yet when and how that will occur.
Original rulings by the Fairfax Circuit Court favored the breakaway group, but based on a Civil War era Virginia statute that, upon appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia found to be not applicable. As a result, the Supreme Court remanded the decision back to the Fairfax Court, to be made without reference to the unconstitutional statute. Tonight’s decision, as a result, came as no surprise to those following the case most closely.
The split in the church, involving a total of 11 congregations in Virginia that voted to break from the Episcopal Church USA and align with CANA, dated to the national Episcopal Church USA vote to confirm as a bishop of the national denomination an openly-gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, from New Hampshire in November 2003.