January 12, 2012
Episcopal Church Wins Major Victory
By Mike McManus
Episcopal Church (TEC) has won a major victory. Virginia Judge Randy
Bellows ordered seven formerly Episcopal Churches in Northern Virginia to
“promptly relinquish” their properties to the Episcopal Church of Virginia,
valued at $40 million.
reading his exhaustive 113 page opinion, this decision seemed to me like
Church, for example, was founded in 1732, decades before the Diocese of
Virginia and TEC was formed in 1783. George Washington once served on its
vestry about the time it build a handsome brick church in 1769. In recent
years, a modern church in the round was constructed nearby attended by 2,000
people each Sunday, including this writer.
parishioners paid for these facilities, the court is forcing the deed to be
handed over to about 100 Episcopalians who voted against leaving TEC. About
90 percent of church members voted to abandon TEC in 2005 after it elevated
a gay priest to be bishop. Most recently, the parish helped create a new
Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic, part of the Anglican Church of North America.
decision seems to violate the Constitution’s First Amendment that there be
“no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free
Bellows is prohibiting the congregation’s free exercise of religion, and is
establishing a church, handing millions of dollars of property to a tiny
How could he
come to this conclusion?
“There is no
dispute in this litigation that TEC is a hierarchical church,” writes
Bellows. He lists 50 ways that “local churches are subject to denominational
authority” and its dioceses “exercise control, supervision and authority”
over local churches. Every priest and all serving on a vestry governing a
church must promise “my hearty assent” to the “doctrines, worship and
discipline of the Episcopal Church.”
All must use
the “Book of Common Prayer” in worship. No local church can elect a rector
without approval of the bishop. A vestry is also barred from removing a
rector without a bishop’s consent. The size and term limits of the vestry
are proscribed. Bishops visit regularly to assess the parish’s health. All
real estate purchases or sales must be approved by the bishop, and a diocese
can seize property of any parish. The bishop controls the entire process of
ordination from who enters the seminary to who is ordained.
Each of the
seven churches called themselves “Episcopal” and the judge said they
remained “Episcopal even if the congregations now in possession of those
churches are no longer in the Episcopal Church.”
who writes a blog, The Anglican Curmudgeon, grumbles that The Episcopal
Church has engaged in “an unprecedented campaign of `intimidation by
lawsuit,’” against scores of churches and entire dioceses that have
attempted to withdraw from TEC, in “75 separate lawsuits,” each of which
seek to seize real and personal property.
the Georgia Supreme Court recently awarded the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia
the property of Christ Church in Savannah, where John Wesley was a priest in
the early 1700s. In the Diocese of Pittsburgh, 74 parishes out of 103 tried
to leave to become Anglican, but lost a lawsuit that forced the Diocese to
turn over $20 million in assets, and each departing church is in litigation
over its property. There is a similar battle in the Diocese of Fort Worth,
San Joaquin, CA and Quincy, IL. Only in South Carolina have churches won
words for the denomination have been replaced sub silentio. It is no
longer `The Episcopal Church welcomes you,’ but rather, `The Episcopal
Church sues you,” wrote the Curmudgeon.
Guernsey of the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic writes, “Our trust is in the
Lord who is ever faithful. He is in control and He will enable you to carry
John Yates, rector of the historic Falls Church was more gracious than I
could be. “From a human perspective, this is sad, sad news…The core issue
for us is not physical property but theological and moral truth and the
intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world. Wherever we worship,
we remain Anglican because we cannot compromise our historic faith.
spiritual forebears in the Reformation, `Here we stand. So help us God. We
can do no other,” he said quoting Martin Luther.