Local Commentary

Church Defectors Acted Immorally

nfbentonpicIf Monday’s nationally-important U.S. Supreme Court decision stands for nothing else, it does when it comes to indiscriminate and erroneous major media references to so-called “people of faith.” The Supremes let the lower court ruling stand, finally settling the dispute over ownership of the property of the historic Falls Church in the City of Falls Church in Northern Virginia.

The media have uniformly characterized disputes over the application of same-sex marriage edicts, having parties claiming religious reasons for their opposition, as being between gay marriage proponents on one side and “people of faith” on the other.

To be blunt, there is no one – as in, “no one” – who can claim to stand for, in any way, this ethereal generic non-entity called “people of faith,” period. The term has no legitimate standing anywhere and should be excluded by all fair-minded journalists from future use. For every “faith” that stands against gay marriage, or abortion, or women in the clergy, there is another fully legitimate “faith” that stands for such things.

There is no case, including pertaining to gay issues, than illustrates this better than the one that the Supreme Court, after seven long years of litigation, finally resolved this week.

I will say at the outset here that I have been sufficiently opinionated on such matters all along, as I am encouraged to be in such an opinion column as this, from a standpoint of “faith,” myself. I am an active member of a mainstream Protestant denomination, and a graduate with honors of an accredited graduate theological seminary. As the owner and editor of the Falls Church News-Press since I founded it in 1991, I’ve taken a particular interest in the Falls Church case since long before the nationally-high profile schism within the congregation of the Falls Church occurred in December 2006.

The defectors, who voted to disassociate from the national Episcopalian denomination and align themselves with a radically anti-gay Anglican archbishop in Nigeria, grounded their actions in opposition to the national denomination’s election of a priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, to standing as a bishop in 2003, and other more progressive causes of the national denomination.

Subsequently, rather than exiting the denomination by stepping away from denomination properties, they squatted on the historic Falls Church property, banning and legally threatening anyone not sanctioned by themselves from setting foot on it. They repeatedly denied access to loyal Episcopalians who voted not to defect.

That “occupation” along with its prohibitions extended from December 2006 to May 2012 after the Fairfax Circuit Court finally ruled in favor of the Diocese of Virginia’s claim on the land. Meanwhile, the “continuing Episcopalians,” those members of The Falls Church who voted against defecting, with as much encouragement as my newspaper could provide, were invited by a Presbyterian church across the street to worship in its fellowship hall. In this way, they maintained their identity and faith “in exile,” so to speak.

The result was that not only did some of the most esteemed leaders of the City of Falls Church align themselves with the “continuing Episcopalians” – people such as the 100-year old founder of the Falls Church School System, the recently retired long-time superintendent of the Falls Church Schools, and the then-mayor of the city – but a number of gay citizens who’d fallen away from the church made it a point to rejoin, as well.

These faithful have now located back onto the historic Falls Church property, including a graveyard with tombstones dating back to the early 1700s. The Falls Church was established in 1735 as a mission outpost of the Episcopal Church in nearby Alexandria, where George Washington was a vestryman.

This matter was not legally, nor civilly, nor morally neutral between the disputing parties. In all three aspects, the defectors were and are in the wrong. Under their leader, a rector defrocked by the Episcopal denomination in early 2007, they had acted in an unrepentantly arrogant manner toward their neighboring community since long before the schism.

Without repentance, there can be no healing, but it appears the defectors have no interest in either.