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December 13, 2006
Column #1,320
George Washington's Church Leaves Denomination
by Michael J. McManus

George Washington served on the vestry of The Falls Church, along with George Mason in the 1760s, both of whom contributed generously to the construction of the historic Anglican church which stands today. After the American Revolution, the British Anglican church was disestablished in the new United States and the church had no rector (pastor) for decades.

For years Francis Scott Key, composer of the Star Spangled Banner, rode horseback from Georgetown across a bridge (later named Key Bridge) six miles to the Falls Church to conduct services. The town of Falls Church, VA grew up around it and the congregation became part of the Episcopal Church. During the Civil War, Union troops occupied the church as a hospital and a stable.

In recent years a modern church in the round was built next to the historic building. The congregation is strongly evangelical and conservative within the increasingly liberal Episcopal Church. In attracting 2,500 worshipers each weekend, The Falls Church is the largest in the Diocese. Second in size is the Truro Church in Fairfax, whose roots also go back to the colonial era.

Last Sunday both churches began a week-long vote to leave the 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church after 226 years and become Anglican again, joining a new Convocation for Anglicans in North America. Seven other evangelical Virginia Episcopal churches took a similar step; one church voted 402-6. Others are likely to follow, as are entire Episcopal Dioceses such as one in California and perhaps Pittsburgh, Dallas, Fort Worth.

What has sparked this historic split?

Ostensibly, it was the 2003 consecration of N.H. Bishop V. Gene Robinson, approved by Episcopal bishops though he left his wife for a gay lover. That angered bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion of 70 million, who voted 526-70 in 1998 to uphold traditional standards opposed to same-sex marriage and the ordaining of active homosexuals. They issued a "Windsor Report" asking the Episcopal Church to repent for its action and to oppose the blessing of same-sex unions.

Last summer the General Convention of the Episcopal Church passed a resolution expressing "regret (not repentance) for straining (rather than "breeching) the bonds of affection" of the Communion. It passed no resolution on same-sex marriage, and resolved instead to oppose "any state or federal constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex civil marriage."

More important to orthodox Episcopalians, the Convention failed to pass a resolution affirming that "Scripture is the Church's supreme authority." A resolution that Jesus Christ is "the only name by which any person may be saved" did not make it out of committee.

Furthermore, the denomination elected as its new Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori who endorsed Gene Robinson as bishop and has approved same-sex blessings of homosexuals in her diocese. At the convention she preached, "Mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation - and you and I are His children."

When TIME magazine asked her, "Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?" she replied, "We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box."

To orthodox Christians, this is heresy. As Falls Church Rector John Yates put it in a sermon on Sunday, "Our leaders have so devalued the Holy Scripture that they can no longer affirm essentials of the faith nor reject sinful behavior. They believe we must stay together no matter what."

For more than a year, Yates and other orthodox clergy have met with Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee to develop a "Protocol for Departing Congregations" which would allow them to leave with their property intact if a super majority of 70% voted to exit and if each church agreed to a fee for the property, worth $17 million for Falls Church and $10 million for Truro.

However, Lee sent a chilling letter two weeks ago threatening to sue individual vestry members if they voted to leave. He cited church canons "15 times without referring to Scripture once," Yates informed his church.

Why? Lee told Yates, "We have a new Presiding Bishop who is like a new sheriff in town." Both churches note they have deeds which antedate the diocese but are asking their churches for authority to contest legally if necessary, as well as approval to leave.

As one parishoner told Yates, "I'd rather worship in a cornfield than submit to heresy."

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