The Episcopal Property War

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The Falls Church

The Falls Church

In the slow-motion civil war of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., one very worldly question has arisen: who owns the real estate? If a congregation chooses to leave the U.S. Episcopal organization, do they have to vacate the property and the physical church building they have been occupying? That high-stakes question will surely take many more legal battles to resolve, but the first round has been won by the secessionists, in a high-profile fight involving a famous old church.

A Virginia County Circuit Court Judge has ruled that at least according to a state statute, The Falls Church, where George Washington was once a vestryman — and which gave its name to the surrounding community — is covered under a state definition that would allow its conservative congregation to take the property into a non-Episcopal group supervised by the conservative Anglican Archbishop of Nigeria. The same goes for ten other churches in Virginia. Their monetary value has been estimated at over $20 million, but their symbolic value is considerably greater. The most immediate part of the ruling by Judge Randy Bellows late Thursday night states that the evidence is "overwhelming" that the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is currently in a state of "division" and that, therefore, under a Civil War era state law, control of its property sits with their congregations, not their previous mother church.

The Virginia case is one of the two most closely watched property disputes in the bitter break-up sparked by disagreement over gay clergy (one which has affected the global Anglican communion). The other, in Long Beach, Calif., was originally decided in favor of the seceding group but overturned on appeal, and is headed for the California State Supreme Court. As a sizable minority of conservative congregations leaves Episcopalianism, the struggle over who gets hundreds of millions of dollars of church property is becoming more and more intense. Passions range so high that the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori, the head of the national Episcopal body, in effect indicated during discovery in the Virginia case that she would rather see the churches sold and deconsecrated for secular purposes than passed on to the departing congregations.

Said Jim Oakes, Vice Chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, a group of secessionist congregations, "I don't want to use the term 'joy' about this. At the risk of sounding Christianesque, we have believed very strongly and soberly that we were [seceding] in obedience to God, and we believe that He is being faithful."

But Judge Bellows' ruling has a second section that apparently requires more deliberation. Henry Burt, a spokesman for the Episcopal Church's Virginia Diocese, which had sued the 11 churches to maintain the property, admitted that "the finding in the case is initially favorable to the [seceding] congregations," but pointed out the judge has specified that the buildings could not change hands unless the second half of his trial determines that the Virginia law is actually constitutional. Hearings on that begin May 28. "And we are confident," says Burt, "that the Virginia law creates issues both with the First Amendment and the Constitution's contracts clause."

Indeed the constitutional issue is vital to the national battle. The Episcopal Church claims that the the agreements binding the rebels' property to it are not just contractual but theological. Therefore, Burt says, for any state government to contravene them "is not just messing with a corporate structure, but messing in a clear and fundamental theological belief." If Judge Bellows decides the Virginia law violates church-state separation it would create a precedent for decisions that would give tremendous authority to Episcopal claims. Should he decide the opposite, it would free seceding churches to appeal under various state laws that might place more emphasis on which group made up the majority in a given congregation.

Burt says that rather than being about money, the case is about "sacred ground. I have friends buried in some of these churches," he says, as do other more liberal members of the 11 congregations who have decided not to depart Episcopalianism. He adds, "They have friends and children and husbands and mothers and grandparents baptized and buried in these churches." What would it mean if those dead were suddenly buried in a hostile churchyard?

Of course, the seceding congregants could say the same if deprived of the properties, and at least in the 11 Virginia churches, they made up the the congregational majorities. Which group George Washington would belong if he were alive today is unknowable. But like almost everyone else involved, he would no doubt be saddened by the increasing rancor.