Following on the recent court ruling remanding all properties currently occupied by breakaway congregations from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia back to the diocese, Virginia Episcopal Bishop Shannon Johnston called the current time “one of the most defining moments in all of our 400 year history” in a pastoral address given to the 217th annual Virginia Diocese Council meeting in Reston yesterday.
The court ruling means that seven properties in Virginia held by breakaway groups, including at the historic Falls Church in downtown Falls Church, must be handed back over to the Episcopal Diocese. It is the latest development in a six-year-long dispute that began with votes by breakaway groups to leave the main Episcopal denomination in protest of, among other things, its election of an openly-gay priest to standing as a bishop in 2003.
“The future is absolutely bristling with possibilities. This is a truly historic time in the life of our diocese,” he said, announcing the formation of “Dayspring,” a “broad, integrated effort to bring vision, strategy and execution to (1) our support of the continuing congregations, (2) our re-start of congregations where we have existing property, (3) our recruitment and placement of clergy where they will be needed and (4) our determination of the use or disposition of other properties and assets to be returned to us.” Johnston said he will head the effort, himself.
Meanwhile, the Rev. John Yates, rector of the Falls Church breakaway congregation, now aligned with the Council of Anglicans in North America (CANA) configuration formed out of all the breakaway groups, issued a letter to his flock saying that while “feelings of anger, grief, fear or just uncertainty” are “surely normal, and healthy,” that “we must, for planning purposes assume we’ll be leaving. And while a move may be delayed for some time, we must be prepared for a move within the next six weeks,” citing the “uncertain nature of how and when we may be required to comply with the ruling.”
But in his pastoral address yesterday, Bishop Johnston stated, “No community of faith, no ministry program will be summarily thrown out of its current place. We will be as open as possible to creative agreements, generous provision, and true mutuality, while protecting the needs of our own ministries and the integrity of our witness…I want to have a witness to the world, particularly the Anglican world, not just an outcome in the court.”