Supreme Court of Virginia rules in favor of diocese, Episcopal Church

Posted Apr 18, 2013

[Episcopal Diocese of Virginia] In a dispute over the ownership of The Falls Church, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled today in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church. The decision affirms an earlier ruling returning Episcopalians to their church home at The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia. The Falls Church Anglican had sought to overturn the lower court’s ruling in favor of the diocese. The court also remanded a portion of the case back to the Fairfax Circuit Court for a decision to determine a minor fractional difference in funds owed to the Diocese of Virginia.

“We are grateful that the Supreme Court of Virginia has once again affirmed the right of Episcopalians to worship in their spiritual home at The Falls Church Episcopal,” said Bishop Shannon S. Johnston of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. “This decision ensures that Episcopalians will have a home for years to come in Falls Church, and frees all of us, on both sides of this issue, to preach the Gospel and teach the faith unencumbered by this dispute.”

The court also held that the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church have a trust interest in the property, in addition to the contractual and proprietary interests already found by the lower court. This validates the “Dennis Canon” in Virginia, and thus provides greater certainty regarding church property ownership.

“The Falls Church Episcopal has continued to grow and thrive throughout this difficult time,” said Edward W. Jones, secretary of the diocese and chief of staff. “This ruling brings closure to a long but worthwhile struggle, and will allow the members of the Episcopal congregation to put the issue behind them and to focus their full energies on the ministries of the church. We hope that The Falls Church Anglican will join us in recognizing this decision as a final chapter in the property dispute.”

Johnston added, “We pray that all those who have found spiritual sustenance at The Falls Church Episcopal and our other churches will continue to move forward in a spirit of reconciliation and love.”

Nearly a year ago, the diocese settled the conflict over property with six other congregations. The Falls Church Episcopal and the other continuing and newly formed congregations — including Church of the Epiphany, Herndon; St. Margaret’s, Woodbridge; St. Paul’s, Haymarket; and St. Stephen’s, Heathsville — spent the past year growing their membership, supporting outreach and strengthening their church communities. Members of the diocese have joined them in these efforts through Dayspring, a diocesan-wide initiative that is bringing a spirit of vision and rebirth to our shared ministries as a church.

Read the full opinion of the Supreme Court of Virginia online.


Comments (19)

  1. David Krohne says:

    One can only hope that similar sanity will prevail in South Carolina.

    1. David Yarbrough says:

      The legal issues are different. Virginia court held that the individual churches are subject to the jurisdiction of the Diocesan Bishop. The dissenting dioceses continue under the jurisdiction of their Diocesan Bishops (+Lawrence, +Iker, +Schofield, +Morales, +Duncan). It’s the parishes who chose to leave their dioceses for a new entity created by 815 who are (or should be) on shaky ground.

      1. Zachary Brooks says:

        What your usual contempt for TEC and its canons refuses to see is that the diocesan bishop of the Episcopal diocese, in all these cases, is not the one who left TEC. Those bishops you listed have abandoned their posts, and are no longer the bishops of Episcopal diocese, and therefore have a right to nothing. The idea that the property belongs to the bishops personally, to be disposed of as they with in spite of the canons of TEC, is so ridiculous one can’t help but to wonder at the sincerity of the people who peddle it.

  2. Rb clay says:

    Just curious, what are the member #’s of the two Falls Church congregations?

    1. Mike Neal says:

      Falls Church Anglican= 3,000
      Fall Church Episcopal= 200

  3. Craig Clere says:

    Once again, the courts rule for TEC, let’s hope the same result in SC.

  4. Robert W Scruggs says:

    Thank God the shabby effort to expropriate The Falls Church has been repudiated. How shabby it is to purpose “to pack up” and “cart off” in “broad daylight,” as it were, an entire church. It is a vile sacrilege to thus impugn the extraordinary historic piety of The Falls Church. Where is the respect for ‘the light perpetual’ that shines for those who have ‘labored on’ and those who now work in the vineyard so that it may continue to bear fruit. In that darkly tragic lament of “Absalom, Absalom, my son Absalom,” the boundless grief of a Father hovers over our Church as marauders circle the camp.

  5. Bruce Garner says:

    This once again affirms the right of individuals to leave the church, as they have always been able to do. And it affirms the fact that parishes and dioceses cannot leave the church. The property is indeed held in trust for current and future use of The Episcopal Church. Some may not like this situation, but such is the canon law of The Episcopal Church. Other denominations have different rules. Southern Baptists have been “splitting and running” for as long as I can remember. Apparently Presbyterians are also able to remove congregations from the church. The canons of The Episcopal Church do not permit anyone to take property or assets. I have given a number of memorials to the various parishes where I have been a member. No matter how irritated I might get with any of those parishes, I don’t have the right to take away what I gave to them. They were gifts and didn’t have conditions or “strings.” People who do not care for the hierarchical church governance should probably find faith communities that are not organized in that fashion. I have often wondered why, if something were so “tainted” by The Episcopal Church, that anyone leaving would want to take it with them. It just further supports my contention that the underlying issue here is about power and control by those who cannot grasp the concept that we live in a church and a world where power and control are increasingly shared among and by those who were once “locked out” of the process. Even Jesus had a “shared” ministry. The twelve were not from the “first families” of the region. And women played a prominent role, including providing the financial resources Jesus needed to sustain His ministry. The marginalized and outcast were always part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Why would the church seek to do otherwise except for issues of power and control?

    1. Pete Meggett says:

      Bruce I disagree that this is just about power. If it was just about power the parish I was a member of would not have considered walking away from the buildings without a fight. There were several families that talked about just leaving as a viable option. The fact that Katharine Jefferts Schori has said that the properties cannot be sold to Anglican Churches shows that this is more of a power issue for TEC than the parishes that would like to leave. Have even heard that she said that it would be better for the property to be turned into a bar or salon rather than become an Anglican church. At first I thought we should just walk away from the buildings. . Yet the more I think about this why should I have to leave a building that my family was attending over 300 years ago. They helped to build some of these church’s in SC and I do have a since of ownership and knowing that one day I might also be laid to rest with other family members on the land we have been a part of since the mid 1600’s. The gifts that my family have made to the local churches were just that gifts to the local church not to TEC.

  6. Doug Desper says:

    So, while all of this gets justified let’s get practical. What this can mean is that a congregation has to tolerate being led by (for example) a bishop who ponders whether or not it matters that Jesus Christ even rose from the dead. Or watch as another bishop holds a forum with a disgraced Roman Catholic lecturer who denies the divinity and bodily resurrection of Jesus. They will be subjected to theological relativism and a lack of clarity, and will be told to maintain that property, polish the brassware, and if they can’t stand it anymore, then just leave. They will be told that North American culture can now change the definition of marriage and that the marriage canons that were definitive yesterday are now on the table for change. Mow the yard, pay the insurance, and hold a capital campaign to reinforce the stained glass, and if they don’t like the revisionist cause of the day then they should just leave….and leave the stuff that they bought, paid for, maintained, insured, and memorialized to their dead parents and children. Got it.

    1. Marc Kivel says:

      I offer the thought, Doug, that when a bishop ponders whether or not it matters that Jesus Christ rose from the dead we should consider that sometimes being outlandish can cause otherwise blasé folk to pull up short and say, “Wait – WHAT!?” In the Gospel According to John, Christ repeatedly tests his would be disciples with teachings that were hardly orthodox in those days – the Gospel is clear that when he declared that by eating His flesh and drinking His blood his disciples became one with Him he lost many who had gone that far with him…yet it was the Twelve who then journeyed on. Jesus himself was hardly clear to his disciples in those days and it seems for many Christians he’s just as opaque today.

      As for the definition of marriage? Until the House of Bishops and the Deputies come to some consensus and do so in conjunction with the several states and federal governments, it seems to me that ultimately the Bishop of each diocese must make the decision on the matter for their respective Dioceses. And I would offer that given the number of Dioceses in the United States there are a continuum of episcopal responses that are consonant with the needs of the faithful as well as the tradition of the Church. There are other steps which might be taken to strengthen the existing sacramental rite of marriage but that is a discussion for another time.

      I offer the final thought that to say that TEC’s position to those who dissent from a particular national policy requires the dissenters to leave and “leave the stuff that they bought, paid for, maintained, insured, and memorialized to their dead parents and children” strikes me oddly. All gifts to a church are intended, or so I have always believed, for the greater glory of God and are no longer tied to the individual givers but are held in trust by the Church for God. And perhaps this is where some catechesis is in order: that the world is God’s and all that is therein, particularly that which is dedicated to his glory and worship….

      Finally, I appreciate that many folk want clarity in their faith: a simple yes or no, yet I am hard pressed to find that Our Lord was overly clear and simple with his parables and his disciples and apostles weren’t even clear when Our Master was transparent or transfigured. Perhaps folks must follow Paul’s dictum and each work out our salvation in fear and trembling? Thoughts?

      1. Doug Desper says:

        Marc –
        I don’t have many new thoughts – just the same as written. We’re coming at this from two opposite ends. I can only speak from my own point of reference. I hold firm that Christianity is not a self-help, self-improvement philosophy or deism; “a “philosophy and empty deceit” as Paul put it. There are revealed truths that come to us without obscurity despite the passage of time, ultimately leading us to change and believe and trust in Jesus Christ. I do not believe that Jesus was obfuscating and lacking clarity when he said things like: “I and the Father are One”, “I am the resurrection”, “no one comes to the Father but by Me”, “you know the way where I am going”, – and about marriage: “for this reason shall a man leave his mother and father and the two will become one flesh”. Those who believe in progressive/process Christianity always use the OT’s prohibition on shellfish as their argument for stating that biblical injunctions for marriage should change. They neglect to mention that the New Testament Church is already recorded plainly in Scripture as laying aside these sorts of Mosaic laws, so that argument has already been finished about food, washing, circumcision, etc. But, how about Jesus’ words about marriage? Outmoded now because American culture wants it otherwise? You’ll have to erase: “for this reason…..” . My point is that too many messages within and from our faith community are grounded as though these things were never said, or worse that they matter less than the ruminations of a bishop who declares that if we found a grave with Jesus, then Christianity would not come crashing down because of it. Really?! Is Christianity just a philosophy or empty deceit? I like how C.S. Lewis put it: “Jesus is either a lunatic and liar, or he is the Son of God, but he cannot be both.” Another example is that I attended a funeral led by a priest who never once mentioned Jesus Christ or our hope in Him in his sermon. That kind of spirituality is costing us. The truth that out of 300 million people less than 700,000 people support the Episcopal Church should be a telling message — and this in a Christian-oriented country. The other 900,000 of our members do nothing on Sunday – which tells us about our spiritual message and about how we make disciples. It’s because people reject being led out into a spiritual desert to die of famine. The 700,000 are more hopeful. So, yes, if we do find people who support we can ill-afford to abuse them, use them, discard them, and say with Barbara Harris, “just go”. We cannot afford to continue losing our members in a desert of personal ruminations that become empty deceits.

  7. Mike Neal says:

    The “church” is not the bldgs. or property. Falls Church Anglican will press on winning the lost to Christ and seeing lives changed for HIS kingdom.

    1. Marc Kivel says:

      And as an Episcopalian I wish only blessings on FCA and its community!

  8. david price says:

    Mr. Neal is dreadfully wrong when he refers to people “lost to Christ.” No one, absolutely no one, even the jihadists, are lost to Christ. Or to God, obviously. We separate ourselves from each other all too much in this world, unfortunately.

  9. Anthony Christiansen says:

    The courts have spoken with the same outcome as the rest of these cases and The Episcopal Church has once again been vindicated. If individuals want to leave the church because they cannot bear to see it following Christ’s example that ALL shall be welcome at the table, then we wish them well and allow them to leave. But that does not mean that they get steal the patrimony of the church. I am proud of The Episcopal Church, of its long and arduous discernment process, and of its decision to stand with the gospel.

  10. walter combs says:

    A big AMEN to that Fr. Mike!

  11. David Host says:

    This tragic decision has eviscerated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, clothing a religious organization with powers that no secular organization enjoys (i.e., the ability to unilaterally impose a trust over property to which TEC has never held record title). Could Rotary International – or any civic organization – have unilaterally imposed a similar trust over a local chapter’s property? Of course not.

    It is saddening that instead of working to achieve reconciliation (either by accommodating opposing viewpoints or allowing dissenters to depart in peace), TEC continues to persecute those who vary from its imposed orthodoxy. At the very least, it could have settled the current disputes by negotiating the purchase of the affected properties – thereby (in the case of The Falls Church) avoiding the displacement of a thriving congregation of 2,000 professing Christians.

    In the Middle Ages, dissenters got burned at the stake. Today, they just get burned in court.

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