Judge Orders Historic Falls Church Keys, $ to Episcopalians By April 30

Breakaway CANA Group May Seek to Rent Temporarily

Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled yesterday that the transfer of all property, physical and other assets, of the Historic Falls Church in the downtown City of Falls Church shall be transferred away from control of the breakaway Anglican congregation to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia by an April 30, 2012 deadline. The judge is slated to sign his final order today at 2 p.m.

The Diocese had sought a March 30 deadline, but Bellows agreed to comply with the request of attorneys for the breakaway “Convocation of Anglicans in North America” (CANA) group for a bit more time.

Judge Bellows ruled that all personal property — including all furnishings, chalices, prayer books, portraits, historic documents and crosses and funds — shall also be conveyed to the Diocese, and that they be calculated based on what was held as of January 31, 2007, the date the Diocese formally filed for legal action to recover its property.

As for the funds, it is estimated that $7 million is involved, with all of it to go to the Diocese except for what might be construed as money raised by the CANA group for its own specific missionary deployment. Resolution of some of monetary matters, therefore, such as money raised for a Southgate Fund to build an auxiliary building, could await a March 30 deadline set by Bellows.

Yesterday’s ruling was the latest step toward closure of the crisis that ripped the historic church asunder at the end of 2006. Rector John Yates urged the congregation at that time to vote itself out of the Episcopal denomination, in part to protest the national Episcopal Church’s election of an openly-gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, to standing as a bishop, and a significant majority of his flock did so.

The breakaway group continued to occupy the physical church campus and deploy its assets, even while scores of members who did not agree to the split were welcomed to a worship space across the street, at the Falls Church Presbyterian Church. There, they continued their identification with the Episcopal Church and to develop a formal church structure of their own.

Reports were that the breakaway group was inhospitable toward the “continuing Episcopalians,” denying them access to or use to the historic campus while the Richmond-based Episcopal Diocese of Virginia began to seek a legal remedy.

Five long years of legal challenges finally resulting in a watershed ruling by Judge Bellows on January 10, 2012 that the historic Falls Church property – and those of six other Episcopal Churches in Virginia – is owned by the Diocese and not the breakaway congregants.

At that time he indicated that motions to implement his ruling would need to be received by yesterday. The Diocese and the CANA group both responded, and Judge Bellows told the court yesterday morning that he would not take them for review, but would spell out his orders right away.

News-Press sources indicate that the CANA group has seen the “handwriting on the wall” for many months, following the ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court that disallowed the use of an archaic 1860s post-Civil War Virginia statute that had been the legal grounds for Judge Bellows’ original decision going their way. Without that law, the ability to establish any entity other than the Diocese as the rightful owner of the property vanished.

In recent months, the CANA leadership began a search for alternative spaces to carry on its ministry, with the result that apparently it will break up its efforts into a variety of different locations.

However, attendance at Sunday worship services has been too large to easily relocate, and the CANA leadership has expressed an interest in renting use of the main sanctuary at the historic campus, at least temporarily.

The News-Press has learned that the idea is being considered by the Diocese on a contingency basis. The Diocese has made it clear it wants to pursue a conciliatory approach to the final resolution of the matter.

Nonetheless, Virginia Diocese Chief of Staff Henry D. W. Burt made it clear to the News-Press in remarks last night that no one is at liberty to discuss any such negotiations at this time. He did say that it appears efforts to keep the day care program currently operating at the historic campus in place going forward.

Burt is originally from Falls Church, himself, and was an acolyte while his parents, Harry and Eleanor, served on the vestry of the historic church before moving to Richmond. He told the News-Press last night, “We are pleased at today’s outcome. It is a major development to return Episcopalians to their property and the property to the mission of the church.”

While Virginia Episcopal Bishop Shannon Johnston called the Jan. 10 ruling by Judge Bellows “one of the most defining moments in all of our 400 year history” in remarks to the Virginia Diocese Council Jan. 27.

He set up an institutional entity called “Dayspring” to assist the transition of the historical Falls Church property, and those of the six other impacted churches in Virgniia, saying “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.”

However, a News-Press source indicated that any arrangements for the CANA group to remain at the historic campus would only be temporary.

In the scores of the articles in the News-Press on the subject of the dispute, and others that preceded it in the Yates-led Falls Church’s contentious dealings with its neighbors for more than a decade, one comment posted on the News-Press web site was simple, straight-forward and summed it all up:

“RockyMissouri” wrote, “All of this because of bigotry toward a homosexual…? Time is wasted upon hating, and hatred…and methinks the beauty of Jesus is that we are all capable of love and acceptance, and this is the lesson being taught now.”