- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee is threatening to sue conservative Episcopal churches that soon will vote on whether to leave his diocese, saying individual members of each congregation’s governing board will be liable.

In a four-page letter released late Friday, the bishop of the country’s largest diocese, with 90,000 members, sent a letter to parishes conducting a 40-day period of discernment on whether to leave the Episcopal Church.

Thousands of Episcopalians already have left the 2.2 million-member denomination over arguments about biblical authority and the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, an active homosexual.

“I believe your successors in the future will regret that decision and its destructive consequences to the whole church,” the bishop wrote of congregations threatening to leave the diocese. Any congregation attempting to leave without a negotiated settlement with the diocese “will have repercussions and possible civil liability for individual vestry members.”

The letter was aimed at a handful of Northern Virginia congregations sitting on millions of dollars’ worth of real estate. The members of those congregations will vote starting Dec. 10 on whether to leave the church. Leaders of two of them — Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax and the Falls Church Episcopal in Falls Church — met for about five hours yesterday in an emergency session.

Bishop Lee’s decision to play hardball with dissenting churches didn’t shock Bishop Martyn Minns, rector of Truro, whose governing board voted unanimously Nov. 11 to leave the denomination.

“I’m disappointed, but not surprised,” Bishop Minns said yesterday. “This is bizarre because we are following a protocol we worked on with him and his leadership for over a year.”

The “Protocol for Departing Congregations,” posted on the diocese’s Web site (www.thediocese.net), lists several steps a congregation must take, including a stipulation that at least 70 percent of the members agree to leave.

If they do, the diocese and parish must negotiate a sum for the church’s property and assets. Truro’s assets, including its property in downtown Fairfax, has been estimated at $10 million. The Falls Church’s property and assets, which include two sanctuaries and a Colonial cemetery, has been estimated to be worth $17 million to $27 million.

However, Bishop Lee added a new provision in his letter — that the 40-member executive board of Episcopal Church headquarters in New York could intervene to prevent a church from leaving with its property.

He also reminded conservatives that he has the power to relegate dissenting parishes to mission status, to declare their property “abandoned” and to take custody of it. Episcopal canon law mandates that departing parishes leave their property to the diocese, and with very few exceptions, U.S. courts have upheld it.

Bishop Minns, who expects that Truro will keep its property, said the matter will be discussed today at a parish meeting between morning services. A member of the diocese’s standing committee, which advises the bishop, also will speak.

“We are operating in line with Virginia law,” Bishop Minns said.

Packets containing the bishop’s letter and other documents will be given out during today’s services at the Falls Church Episcopal, whose governing board voted 15-2 on Nov. 13 to leave the diocese. Sentiment at the nearly 275-year-old church tilts toward leaving the denomination. Last Sunday, one of the classes listed in its bulletin was titled “Letting Go … of the Episcopal Church?”

The Rev. Robert Watkin, an assistant priest at the church, urged members to cast their ballots Dec. 10.

“It’ll be the most important vote you’ll ever cast — at least in church,” he said.

Elsewhere in the country, a majority of the clergy and lay delegates at the annual meeting of the Diocese of San Joaquin in Central California voted yesterday to identify themselves as members of the worldwide Anglican Communion rather than as a diocese of the Episcopal Church. They stopped short of splitting from the denomination, which would have touched off a huge legal battle over millions of dollars in real estate.

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