National Commentary

Church Defectors Acted Immorally, Part 5

nfbentonpic(Part 5 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. For part four, click here.)

The banner headline atop the front page of the December 21, 2006 edition of the Falls Church News-Press read, “F.C. Episcopal Votes to Defect, But Who Now Gets to Keep the Land?”

My story began, “The Falls Church Episcopal Church and its 2,800 members, who worship at facilities that include a 1700s-era chapel in the heart of the City of Falls Church, made front page news globally this week by voting overwhelmingly to formally defect from the national Episcopal denomination. It joined eight other churches in Virginia that all left the denomination after congregational voting concluded on Sunday. The multiple-church exodus was precipitated by the wide-majority vote of bishops of the 2.2-million member national denomination in 2003 to elevate the openly-gay Rev. V. Gene Robinson to standing as the bishop of New Hampshire.”

In an accompanying editorial on Page 2 entitled, “No Surprise to Us Locals,” I wrote, “The Falls Church Episcopal Church is now front page news all over the world for its vote, announced Sunday, to formally defect from the Episcopal denomination. But the 10,500 folks in the tiny City of Falls Church have had the Falls Church Episcopal – with its membership drawn from the wider region almost a third the size of the whole town – not only in their midst, but “in their faces” for much of the last 20 years since the church took a decidedly right-wing turn.”

“Years of acrimony” prior to the defection, I continued, “included a successful push-back from the community” (when the City Council refused to hand over a public street to its mega-church designs). “Many in the community whose families were members of the church for a half-century and longer became caught up in the church’s recent frenzied crusade to defect. Some now claim the church was less than up front to those folk about its real chances of keeping its current location upon defecting.”

The banner headline about who would control the property became the biggest story in little Falls Church for the next seven and a half years, as the defectors defiantly occupied the church property, banned congregants who voted not to defect, and used millions raised by the congregation for a parish life center instead to pay for a huge legal fight to stay there for good.

The Diocese of Virginia insisted from Day One that it had title to the property, but chose a legal route to establish that which took those seven and a half long years. In the meantime, the hundreds of church members who voted not to defect were banished from the property, but through a resilient buoyancy of spirit organized themselves into a church in exile, holding weekly services and developing all the functions of a small congregation right across the street in the fellowship hall of the welcoming Falls Church Presbyterian Church.

Meanwhile, the soon-to-be formally defrocked Rev. John Yates moved quickly with his allies in other defector groups to align his congregation with something they called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), set up as a subordinate of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, where the archbishop, Peter Akinola, a protege of Yates’ colleague the Rev. Martin Minns during his seminary studies in Northern Virginia, advocated the criminalization of homosexuality.

Akinola had just issued a statement praising the passing of a new law in Nigeria criminalizing same-sex relationships and requiring the registration of gay clubs, societies and organizations, and outlawing “publicity, procession and public show of same-sex amorous relationships through the electronic or print media physically, directly, indirectly or otherwise” with a penalty of up to five years of imprisonment.

To be continued.