U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear Falls Church Anglican case

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Mar 10, 2014

[Episcopal News Service] More than seven years after a majority of clergy and members of several Diocese of Virginia congregations declared they had left the Episcopal Church and the question of ownership of the property involved began to be litigated, the U.S. Supreme Court refused on March 10 to hear the appeal of the last congregation still at odds with the Episcopal Church and the diocese.

The court gave no reason for deciding not to review a 2013 ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court reaffirming an earlier circuit court ruling that returned The Falls Church property to loyal Episcopalians to use for the mission of the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church. The court’s decision was included in its March 10 order list and was one of 121 requests for review that it refused.

All that remains in the case is for the Diocese of Virginia to request an order from the Fairfax Circuit Court releasing to the diocese more than $2.6 million that was in the Falls Church’s bank accounts at the time of the split and that the court has been holding in escrow during the progression of the case.

“We are most gratified by the Supreme Court’s ruling,” said Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon S. Johnston in a press release. “We look forward to the possibilities that the months ahead will bring, and continue to keep those affected by the litigation in our prayers.”

In an accompanying letter to the diocese, Johnston called March 10 “an important day for our diocese” because of the ruling.

We finally can say, with great thankfulness, that the Diocese of Virginia no longer is involved in property litigation …[and] … The Falls Church Episcopal is free to continue to worship and grow in its home church buildings.”

“Although today marks an official and much anticipated end to the litigation, it also marks a beginning,” the bishop said. “We will now be able to focus fully our attentions on the many truly exciting ministries all over our diocese. I pray that those in the [Convocation of Anglicans in North American] congregations will join us in turning this fresh page.”

The Rev. John Ohmer, rector of The Falls Church Episcopal, said in the diocesan release that “although it breaks my heart to think of where all that money and energy could have gone, today’s news is uplifting for our congregation.”

“My hope and prayer is that all sides can now continue to grow their communities of worship, ministries and outreach in our church homes,” he said.

The Falls Church Anglican congregation on Oct. 9, 2013 asked the country’s highest court to review the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision. A chronology of the court filings, including those from other interested parties, which followed from that request is here.

The Falls Church was one of 11 congregations in the diocese in which a majority of members voted to disaffiliate from the diocese and the Episcopal Church. Over the years, all but The Falls Church Anglican had settled their property conflicts with the diocese and the church after judicial decisions in favor of the diocese and the church.

After a Fairfax County Circuit Court Jjudge ordered The Falls Church Anglican in March 2012 to return the parish property to the diocese, the Anglicans only agreed to allow the Episcopalians to return to the parish building to celebrate Easter (April 8, 2012). However, the Anglican congregation soon thereafter appealed to the state Supreme Court and in the meantime asked the Circuit Court to prevent the Episcopalians from returning again until the high court ruled. The Circuit Court refused and the Falls Church Episcopalians returned to their property on May 15, 2012.

The Virginia Supreme Court on April 18, 2013 affirmed the circuit court ruling returning the Falls Church property to the Episcopalians. The Falls Church Anglican asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider, despite earlier comments by the Rev. John Yates, The Falls Church Anglican’s rector, on April 28 that the Supreme Court’s “overwhelming rejection of our arguments … reduces our legal options drastically.”

Then in June 2013, the state’s high court refused to reconsider its ruling and Falls Church Anglican later decided to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state court’s actions.

The leaders of the Anglican congregation have not yet commented on the high court’s decision, but in a Feb. 24 update to the members Junior Warden Kristen Short acknowledged that the request for review was “against the odds.” The decision to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, she said, was part of what she called the congregation’s ministry of “speaking boldly on behalf of believing individuals and faithful congregations across the country who are under attack.”

“We have tried to discern God’s will at every juncture and believe we are acting out of obedience to Him,” she wrote. “While we may not relish the ‘battle’ we’re in, we did not sense that the Lord was giving us permission to withdraw.”

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (21)

  1. David Krohne says:

    Imagine what good work could have been accomplished with all the money wasted on lawyers and litigation.

  2. Richard Halter says:

    I pray that this marks the halt to those who wish to leave the Episcopal Church from filing what are turning out to be irresponsible and expensive lawsuits – who are we leaving behind in our desire to bring Christ and service to the people in this nation and around the world when time after time litigation doomed to fail is destroying resources and ministries?

    Did not Christ say “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case,* or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.’

    Some of our best and most capable servants in Christ are paying the very last penny rather than turning to God to find a path so that each party can end these destructive processes and get on with serving the community and the world. Please take our Lord’s words to heart, and serve others, rather than pay that very last penny to the system that is not designed to resolved these issues.

  3. Lucia Lloyd says:

    We give thanks for the ending of this litigation, and for the restoration of loyal Episcopalians to their church buildings and their resources. We are grateful to have this resolved and in the past, and to move on to mission and ministry in the future.

  4. Anthony Christiansen says:

    Thank goodness that this chapter is over and that Episcopalians in a Virginia can get on with spreading the good news. It boggles the mind that a group of people can go off and create a new denomination (that is by definition NOT Anglican) based on hatred and exclusion –and at the same time expect that they can keep the property that belongs to the Church from which they’ve chosen to depart. It doesn’t seem like rocket science, trying to figure this one out from a legal point of view. I’m glad the Supreme Court agrees.

  5. Sharon Caulfield says:

    Congratulations to the many fine lawyers on behalf of The Episcopal Church who saw this unfortunate chapter to the end.

  6. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    This is the result we were hoping for. Sad that it took so long, but what a relief the historic church property will remain in the Episcopal Church. I predict the growth of the congregation to its former strength and with a new sense of mission. How grateful we are for every Episcopalian who remained loyal to our Church.

  7. Doug Desper says:

    Before all of this destructive engagement I recall how the Falls Church (before the split/conservative departure) was hailed as a vital example of church growth and was bragged about for their comprehensive ministry. Now, I suppose, it helps to just caricature the conservatives as reactionary, narrow, unjust, and any number of qualities that make the remaining Episcopalians more comfortable. But, a failure of “the middle way” has occurred that caricatures and dismissive summaries cannot cover over. How can we be led to believe that so many hundreds and thousands — and nowadays TENS of thousands – of fellow Episcopalians are simply leaving because they listen to a few loud voices and then split off? I don’t think so. I believe that there is a failure of leadership in that the middle way has fallen definitively far left of center and that a new progressive orthodoxy demands strict adherence; much to the damage of the consciences of members; whether they be at Falls Church, South Carolina, New York, Texas, or elsewhere. The liberal progressive orthodoxy often claims to demand respect for canons – such as in property – and yet what of the convenient flouting of other canons to teach our current standard of marriage? The Executive Council joining our Church as a member of the organization advocating abortion rights? The Executive Board’s total failure to take seriously funding and programming for evangelism, as in ignoring the 20/20 mandate from General Convention? Just last year – during Holy Week – Bishop Spong delivered his typical “I doubt that” message about the cross and Christianity in the very diocese that now celebrates the loss of the majority of the membership of the Falls Church. Bishop Spong has never been censured, and he continues to be celebrated and invited to promote a faith rejected by the councils of the Church. I could go on, but to no purpose. The proof is in the pews. This Sunday we cannot muster 1/2 of our membership to support, churches are closing, cathedrals are shuttering, thousands have left. This “victory” is about stuff–but we still have a sentinel event occuring in this denomination that few recognize or have the courage to solve.

    1. Ryan Oliver says:

      Thank you Doug.

  8. Robert R. Hansel says:

    SILLY. The two situations are not even remotely parallel.


    Well, Maybe, Doug. At the same time there are dioceses, untouched by the “let’s secede” syndrome” that continue to put one foot in front of the other, continue to minister beyond their own, continue to grow. West of the Mississippi there are more than one can count. It helps to be aware of those parts of the church well beyond our immediate vision.

  10. Anthony Christiansen says:

    Doug, it seems to me to me that part of embracing the via media of Anglicanism involves embracing an understanding and conviction that various parties need not agree in order to live and worship together under the same tent. Such comprehensiveness and inclusivity of difference have been the sine qua nons of Anglicanism from her beginnings. The ancient maxim, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity,” variously attributed, is a helpful one and is frequently invoked as describing the catholic faith as it should be lived. Many of us believe that TEC has embraced the middle way and the catholic faith more fully as it has attempted to explore and express a still developing tradition and set of doctrines. You may not believe that and that is perfectly fine, but many faithful Episcopalians are of the opinion that it has been those who have chosen to leave that have abandoned the middle way that characterizes our Anglican tradition.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      Anthony — I am definitely with your notion about not having to agree about non-essentials. In essentials, unity, and in non-essentials, tolerance. Got it. Believe it. That’s not the concern for many people though. Their issue is what is being called negotiable and the ongoing exacting of patience for the private and divisive revelations of notable leaders. Examples: What do you make of a bishop who becomes the president of the regional Planned Parenthood organization and raises his hand to bless the site of an abortion clinic—and tells people that we can all just worship together and not look very closely at such things? Or other bishops who unilaterally changed the definition and practice of marriage in the name of some prophetic insight — well ahead of canonical change which has yet to happen — and then want to worship together and not look closely at such things? …and on – and on…. The exacting of good will and patience for such behavior has become exhausting.

      1. Bernard Louis says:

        Well said, Doug. This division is not over “doubtful matters.” It is over central claims of the historic Christian faith that have been rejected and updated without any adherence to canonical procedure. The via media practiced by progressive Episcopalians is not inclusive, it is far from it. Conservatives are not at all welcome, and are usually pushed to the side or censured. Those who believe otherwise are likely either not exposed to it, or simply persist in disbelief, or are themselves accomplices.

  11. John Neir says:

    Well stated Anthony

  12. Dick Van Gorder says:

    We set up this zero-sum game, where there’s supposed to be winners and losers. But, folks, we all lost.

    1. walter combs says:

      You nailed it with ‘we all lost’. This is hardly a victory. We may have the building and property but hardly have the people to occupy it. Will it just end up sold off and the money used to sue others? Looks like Diocese of Fort Worth is going to prevail against us. The Diocese of South Carolina will probably also go in the ‘win’ column of those who have left us. We need to stop these law suits. So many better ways could the money spent on litigation be used.

  13. Terry Francis says:

    I agree with most if not all of what Doug Despers has written regarding this court case. However I feel the need to respond to some of the comments of Anthony Christiansen. The people who chose to leave TEC did so because they could no longer stay in a denomination that totally went against their interpretation of scripture and Christianity in general. The new church they formed Anthony dismisses as being “based on hatred and exclusion”. Really? Who are you to stand in judgement of these people Anthony? Who appointed you to decide whether they are “true” Anglicans? One of the reasons so many conservative Episcopalians have chosen to leave is because of the self-righteous and polarizing attitudes of people like you! I find it astounding that you can say with a straight face that TEC has embraced the middle way regarding the faith. Let me say that I love the Episcopal church. I love the sacraments, I love the Book of Common Prayer, I love the Anglican form of worship. But let’s be frank – this church is dominated by those with progressive leanings. Completely. Totally. TEC hasn’t embraced the “middle way” in decades. So while all my Episcopal brothers and sisters are celebrating and high-fiving each other over the ultimate outcome of this case, I hope you will pause long enough to say a prayer for those on the losing side and at least wish them well in their spiritual journey.

  14. Anthony Christiansen says:

    Terry, my “judgement” about who is or is not Anglican is based on something quite fundamental: being Anglican necessarily means being in communion with Canterbury. Those who have broken communion with TEC, The Anglican Church of Canada, etc. are not in communion with Canterbury. Presbyterians and Methodists are also break-offs from the Anglican Communion and I have the utmost respect for many of my Presbyterian and Methodist friends –but that doesn’t mean I have to call them Anglicans. I have no animosity toward those who have left, although I do believe that many of them have left for reasons having to do with hatred and exclusion. I’ve been watching this play out for many years and have had many people tell me their reasons for leaving –and can call those reasons nothing but hatred and exclusion. Do I wish them well? Do I hope some of them decide to return some day? Do I forgive the mistakes that have been made on both sides? I do. And I do pray for those who’ve left. But none of this means that I’m not entitled to have an opinion about all that’s occurred.

    1. Bernard Louis says:

      Being Anglican does not mean “in communion with Canterbury”. ACNA is in communion with over 70% of the worldwide Anglican communion, many of whom themselves censure and condemn the actions of the TEC and ACC. The shift of centrality in Anglican authority is clearly moving toward GAFCON. Lambeth will remain relevant only inasmuch as Lambeth retains its commitment to the historic Catholic faith. If Canterbury goes the way of TEC and ACC, it will no longer be even a token of authority in the communion.

    2. Bernard Louis says:

      Also, the fact that TEC has members who call commitment to two thousand years of Catholic faith “hatred and exclusion” only demonstrates how far the TEC has fallen. The absurdity is plain. TEC is has become heretical, training up polarizing adherents committed to exclusivism, and not the via media.

  15. Toby McPerson says:

    Viva to the Episcopal Church.

Comments are closed.