As memorable Easters go, it was the tops in my life so far, and I’ve had more than a few, both of the sacred and bunny-centric variety. It was a church service, and I wasn’t even a member.
This last Easter Sunday, the historic Falls Church in Northern Virginia opened its doors to a return of a local congregation of Episcopalians who had been banished from their home church location and held in exile since the beginning of 2006.
It marked the end of a travail that began with years of arch conservative leadership at the church that used the occasion of the election of an openly gay bishop in the national Episcopal denomination in 2003 to rally its members to defect. By 2006, a vote was taken in the church, whose membership had swollen with like-minded conservatives, and a majority followed the existing leadership to break away from the Episcopal Church.
Other churches in Virginia followed suit. In the case of the Falls Church, founded in 1732 as a mission outpost of a church in Alexandria where George Washington was a vestryman, the defectors claimed the church property as theirs.
But something happened that few expected at the time. Members of the congregation who did not vote to defect refused to cave in. Rather than follow the defectors’ route, or to scatter to other churches around the region, they resolved to keep their identity and faith alive by starting to worship in the fellowship hall of a hospitable Presbyterian church across the street.
They became the “continuing Episcopalians” of Falls Church, and while the conservative defectors organized themselves to align with a Anglican bishop in Nigeria with fiercely anti-gay views, to change the name of the historic church to Falls Church “Anglican,” and to defend their conservative rejection of women in the priesthood, this tiny cell of brave “continuing Episcopalians” held forth nonetheless.
Some of the longest-standing and most respected members of the old Falls Church stood with the “continuing” folk, and with my newspaper, the mighty Falls Church News-Press, standing staunchly in moral and editorial support of them, including publicizing their meetings and events, the mayor of the City of Falls Church joined them and some gay couples came from other churches to sign on to show solidarity with them.
Meanwhile, a plodding process unfolded in the courts over the control of the property at a painstakingly slow pace. The conservative defectors refused the “continuing” group access to the Falls Church campus, despite occasional claims to the contrary.
The defectors won the first round in the court, the judge ruling on the basis of a post-Civil War law that was passed to enable white congregations to control their church properties through Reconstruction. But the state supreme court threw out the ruling, saying that law could not apply in this case. It was remanded back to the lower court, and with that, the ruling came in January that the property was owned by its original deed-holder, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
Quietly, the leader of the defector group packed up and vacated the parsonage, also owned by the Diocese.
But it was not until Easter Sunday last weekend, when on a bright, crisp day the doors of the historic, original chapel of the Falls Church were opened to the return of the “continuing” Episcopalians, that the full impact of the past six years began to be felt. It was a homecoming, and beyond the core group of the “continuing” faithful who’d held on so firmly, hundreds filled the brightly-lit chapel for a standing-room-only service.
There was a space filled with people, standing, kneeling and singing loudly, who had been willing to hold resolute on behalf not only of their faith, but on behalf of those whom others would oppress and deny.
It was a triumphant, thrilling, ennobling experience made most poignant by the presence of a young openly gay man among them, whose parents had worked among the hardest to keep the “continuing” flame alive, for him and for all those who for whatever reason are downtrodden and denied in our world.
Isn’t that what church is supposed to be for?