Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee, head of the nation's largest Episcopal diocese, could lose almost 10 percent of his flock tomorrow if several conservative parishes carry out their threats to leave the church.
He is denying reports that pressure from denominational leaders in New York is forcing him to take a hard line with the nine churches that want to leave the denomination over questions of biblical authority and the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, an active homosexual.
"The diocese owns their property," he said in an interview with The Washington Times. "It was developed by generations of people who were faithful Episcopalians and who are buried with these churches. We have a fiduciary responsibility not to let a current generation of leaders -- who are mistaken -- to take away the property of the church."
But, he added, "I do not want to go to court if we can avoid that."
The loss to the 90,000-member Virginia diocese would be greater than the defections suffered at once by any U.S. Episcopal diocese. Three mission churches have pulled out in the past year and on Monday All Saints Church in Dale City announced that 98.5 percent of its congregation had voted to leave.
The remaining eight parishes will announce their voting results tomorrow, including the crown jewels of the diocese: the 275-year-old Falls Church Episcopal in Falls Church and 19th-century Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax.
The exodus will show up most in attendance figures, as the churches in question are among the diocese's most vibrant. On an average Sunday, 5,500 people attend the nine churches and three missions, constituting about 17 percent of the diocese's Sunday attendance figure of 32,000. On the other hand, the loss of membership -- the number enrolled in a church whether or not they attend -- would be about 8,750 people, slightly less than 10 percent of the diocese's 90,000 figure.
Nor are the losses likely to stop tomorrow. Two more Northern Virginia churches with a combined 400 members -- Church of the Epiphany in Herndon and Our Saviour Episcopal in Oatlands -- are slated to vote in early 2007.
Although the bishop struck a deal with All Saints in Dale City, the vestries, or governing boards, of the other eight churches received a threatening letter from him on Dec. 1, reminding them they could be sued. The letter shocked conservatives, who said the diocese had secretly agreed over the past year to let them depart under the guidelines of a "protocol" whereby they buy their way out of the diocese.
Some struck back.
"Are you ceding your authority over the Diocese of Virginia to national church officials?" said a scathing Dec. 5 letter from leaders of the Church of the Apostles in Fairfax. "Can we expect to find you no longer the man of honor and civility we have come to know who seeks amicable solutions in the best traditions of the Diocese of Virginia? Or are you instead becoming a man of legalisms, threats and intimidations?"
The bishop said he did not write his letter under coercion from either the new Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori or her chancellor, David Booth Beers.
Instead, Bishop Lee said he was concerned that vestries had not been "accurately presented" with the consequences, should they try to leave the diocese with their property.
"I met the wardens and rectors of the Falls Church and Truro on Oct. 16 and told them I supported the so-called protocol and, at the same time, said it did not exhaust the consequences of their decisions," he said.
"I have not changed at all. I have for the last three years tried to accommodate and listen," going so far as to allow former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey into the diocese for confirmation services "when they would not receive me.
"So they got the impression I would not live up to my responsibilities and that I would not protect the wider church. But I have sworn to uphold the canons of the church."
His breakaway churches plan to join an "Anglican District of Virginia" under the headship of Archbishop Peter J. Akinola of Nigeria. All Saints will join the Anglican Diocese of North Kigezi in Uganda.
The Rev. Jan Nunley, a spokeswoman at Episcopal Church headquarters in New York, doubted Bishop Jefferts Schori would threaten Bishop Lee.
"When you look at the canons, you find the presiding bishop can't threaten much of anything," she said. "From a strictly legal standpoint, what can she do?"