Who would have guessed it? A year ago, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church (the New York-based denomination) was set to roll over a group of 11 breakaway conservative churches that had deserted the diocese the year before. The denomination has hundreds of millions of dollars in its coffers. The diocese had access to some very good lawyers and the contributions of close to 200 churches.
Arrayed against them were the 11 churches that were frantically trying to raise funds for this huge legal battle. It is the largest property dispute in Episcopal Church history and this was the David-and-Goliath scenario.
That was then.
This past week, I was at the Fairfax County courthouse for the third — or fourth — round of hearings in this multi-trial case. (There have been a lot more behind-the-scenes briefings I have not covered). We’ve now moved to 4J, a much larger courtroom than we had in previous hearings. The courthouse itself has finished its renovations since the hearings began and its size has at least doubled.
Lawyers for the diocese are seated to the right. Lawyers for the breakaways, now under an Anglican District of Virginia (ADV), which itself is under a Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), are to the left. Blue, yellow and orange swirley carpet is on the floor.
Circuit Judge Randy I. Bellows has become a permanent fixture on the bench. He’s the perfect guy for this. Both sides like him and he’s good at rapping the knuckles of either side when the attorneys get too obtuse, foggy or blather on too much. There are occasional flashes of humor, too. Much to the chagrin of the diocese, however, the judge has ruled in favor of the breakaway churches three times this year.
One major development in the case that’s gone almost uncovered is the judge’s recent ruling last month that all the elections held by the ADV churches in late 2006 or early 2007 were done legally. That was a huge victory for the ADV folks. Back in June, when I was attending a meeting of some Episcopalians on the side of the diocese, they were discussing a strategy of challenging each of the 11 votes. That’s gone. That cut the legs from right underneath the diocese.
The latest tactic by the diocese — which the ADV folks witheringly refer to as a ‘Hail Mary pass’ — is the enlisting of the venerable Christ Church of Alexandria into the fray. The diocese wishes to persuade the judge that through some 18th- and 19th-century land records and court decisions, Christ Church actually holds title to land now possessed by the Falls Church. Of course, the Christ Church folks have not been on the property in 185 years. This long shot by the diocese sounds a bit desperate to some of us who never thought they could actually lose this court battle. There is going to be a lot of explaining to do around the diocese — which may still be the country’s largest at this point — about this one.
The judge makes his decision sometime after Nov. 10, the deadline for all the briefs. It’s not rocket science here as to what it might be. The diocesan folks are already talking about appealing the case, but Judge Bellows, knowing that appellate courts would be surveying his every word, will no doubt make it difficult for any higher court to reverse him.
I’ll be back in court Monday to continue covering this final phase, but Goliath, it appears, is quickly falling to David. A personal note: Any of you who’d like to meet me personally can do so at my booksigning for my new book “Quitting Church. The event is from 3-5 p.m. Saturday at the Book Nook bookstore, 5606 Baltimore Ave., in Hyattsville (20781 if you need the ZIP). That’s in the city’s new arts district. Refreshments will be there, of course.
— Julia Duin, religion editor, The Washington Times