National Commentary

Church Defectors Acted Immorally, Part 4

nfbentonpic(Part 4 of a series following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling earlier this month to let stand the lower court decision that the property of the historic Falls Church in Northern Virginia belonged to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and not an arch-conservative pack of defectors from that church who voted to leave it in December 2006, but subsequently occupied the property for five and a half years. For part one, click here. For part two, click here. For part three, click here.)

This series describes the impact that the December 2006 defection of a majority of congregants at The Falls Church, and events in years leading up to it, had on the surrounding community of the City of Falls Church, and within the congregation of that church that became so sharply divided as a result. This defection was shamefully immoral.

While the defectors and their leader the Rev. John Yates define immorality in terms of specific “sinful” acts, a more Biblical notion of immorality involves “non-loving,” from neglect and bullying to hateful behaviors and attitudes.

In his sermon last Sunday about the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Yates angrily assailed the “immoralities now being blessed” by the continuing Episcopalians who reclaimed their property, and described a parishioner who “almost threw up” when she walked by it. Yates presumably referred to the issue that sparked the schism in the first place, the Episcopal denomination’s loving embrace of the equality of same-sex-oriented persons.

My home mere blocks from the church, I observed and described in my newspaper the interaction between Yates and his eventual defectors and others within and surrounding the church. The Yates faction was governed by a self-serving, bullying arrogance and chauvinism that ranged from indifference to hate toward all who did not share its views.

So, its action to leave the denomination and stubbornly occupy the church property – eventually found by the courts to be illegal in the manner of criminal trespass – came as no surprise to anyone paying attention to their ways.

Some long-time locals continued to attend the church as it tilted in this sad direction, citing loyalty and the church’s heralded tradition. One was a delightful older man who sold advertising for me, and his lovely wife (both now deceased).

But the church’s internal schismatic momentum was commanded by arch-conservatives who joined it after Yates arrived in the wake of the “Reagan revolution” across the Potomac. Figures like Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Bush speech writer Michael Gerson, other arch “neo-cons” like Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard (the Bush White House “Bible”), Ken Starr and many more came from afar to fill pews, turning Yates and the church into a political tool of their “Family.”

A youth outreach program was introduced as a phalanx into the community. In the mid-1990s, I was present when the youth minister delivered a sermon at the funeral of a local high school student, filled with her young friends. He reiterated a theme that youths in his ministry undoubtedly heard routinely: compared to them, he said, their parents were compromisers and backsliders, and it was up to them to shape them up. The young were turned against their parents, discord in the home was fomented.

A local high school teacher who assigned frequent student essays to educate and also to help draw students out in self-reflecting ways, lamented that many essays became only amateur self-righteous sermons.

In 1999, Yates deemed it time to grow a “mega-church,” buying a strip mall across the street with eight small businesses, expelling them all with designs to build an $18 million “parish life center.” It included coercing the City Council to closing the public street separating the properties, conveying it to the church to allow for a seamless “campus.”

Never mind there were 400 people living on that street who would be disenfranchised. In a flier to the Council members, one a Jew, Yates wrote his plan was Jesus’ will. Through years of this bullying effort, my newspaper editorialized forcefully against it. Eventually Yates didn’t get his way, and the defection came soon after.

(To be continued)