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January 12, 2012

Column #1,585

Episcopal Church Wins Major Victory

By Mike McManus

            The 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.

            Before reading his exhaustive 113 page opinion, this decision seemed to me like THEFT.

            The Falls 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.

            Although 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.

            The court’s decision seems to violate the Constitution’s First Amendment that there be “no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

            Judge Bellows is prohibiting the congregation’s free exercise of religion, and is establishing a church, handing millions of dollars of property to a tiny minority.

            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.”

            A.S. Haley, 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.

            For example, 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 legal battles.

            “The guiding 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.

            Bishop John 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 forward.”

            The Rev. 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.

            “Like our spiritual forebears in the Reformation, `Here we stand. So help us God. We can do no other,” he said quoting Martin Luther.

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