Thursday, June 29, 2006

CORRECTION: The Washington Times mischaracterized a meeting Wednesday between the Rev. Martyn Minns and Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee. Representatives of the Falls Church Episcopal and Truro Episcopal churches now say no final decision on leaving the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has been made.

Two of Northern Virginia’s largest and most historic Episcopal churches — Truro and the Falls Church — informed Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee yesterday that they plan to leave the diocese and that as many as two dozen other parishes may follow suit.

And the Rev. Martyn Minns, rector of Truro Church, was elected a bishop yesterday by the Anglican province of Nigeria with the mandate to oversee a cluster of U.S. parishes that minister to expatriate Nigerians.

Mr. Minns was driving north on Interstate 95 from Richmond when he got the news on his cell phone from Anglican Archbishop Peter J. Akinola. The archbishop then put him on a speaker phone to address a gathering of Anglicans in Abuja, the country’s capital.

“I said I was honored by their willingness to place their trust in me,” said Mr. Minns, 63, who earlier this year had announced plans to retire.

Instead he will oversee the Convocation for Anglicans in North America, which includes more than 20 Anglican churches that cater to Nigerian immigrants in the U.S. but could be enlarged to include Episcopal congregations fleeing the 2.2-million-member denomination.

“We have deliberately held back from this action,” Archbishop Akinola said in a statement, in the hope that the Episcopal Church would turn back from its 2003 consecration of Canon V. Gene Robinson as the world’s first openly homosexual bishop. But the actions of last week’s Episcopal General Convention “make it clear that far from turning back, they are even more committed to pursuing their unbiblical revisionist agenda.”

Diocese of Virginia officials were surprised by the news.

“The fact of Martyn’s election raises a host of issues that will be addressed in due course,” spokesman Patrick Getlein said.

Truro and the Falls Church have a combined $27 million in assets. Situated on some of Northern Virginia’s most valuable real estate, both churches are having 40-day “discernment” periods of prayer, fasting and debate, starting in September and ending just before Thanksgiving, before announcing a final decision.

Officially, the 40-day period has “no predetermined outcome,” said the Rev. John W. Yates, rector of the Falls Church, but it’s clear that “the growing crisis and dysfunction in the Episcopal Church” is pushing the orthodox toward the exit doors.

“It’s certainly a step no church — especially one with a history we’ve had — takes without the greatest humility,” he said in an interview at the parish where George Washington once worshipped. “But so many Episcopalians in the pews are so irate over what’s happened, and it’s harder and harder to call on people to wait.”

The Falls Church and Truro Church presented their plan in Fairfax on Saturday to a meeting of officials representing 20 to 30 Episcopal churches around Virginia. Thirteen to 14 churches already have agreed to have their own 40-day period, he said.

Rectors of two other large Northern Virginia parishes also told The Washington Times yesterday, on condition of anonymity, that they, too, may be leaving. One is involved in secret negotiations with the diocese over property issues; another says his vestry, or governing board, approved the 40-day idea Tuesday night, but his parish needs to vote on it Sunday.

Before he received the phone call from Nigeria, Mr. Minns met Bishop Lee early yesterday to inform him of the 40-day plan.

“He’s still saddened by the whole development,” Mr. Minns said. “But he understood what we’re doing.”

In two previous interviews with The Times, Bishop Lee has said he will sue any church that tries to leave the 90,000-member diocese, the country’s largest. However, two mission congregations who left the diocese several months ago have not landed in court.

Episcopal canon law mandates that departing churches turn over all their assets to the diocese, and Mr. Yates is part of a six-person team of negotiators trying to figure out how conservatives can depart without bankrupting themselves or the diocese through lawsuits.

“We’ve been trying to find a way through this crisis peacefully and keep our property,” he said. Although the negotiators — who include three conservatives and three church liberals — have come to trust each other, “it’s been acknowledged that just as two churches have left the diocese, others may also leave.”

Although the General Convention last week agreed on an indefinite moratorium on homosexual prelates, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark announced yesterday a homosexual man — Canon Michael Barlowe, the development officer for the Diocese of California — as being among the four candidates for its Sept. 23 election for a new bishop.

Also yesterday, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh standing committee voted to join the Diocese of Fort Worth in rejecting the leadership of Presiding Bishop-elect Katharine Jefferts Schori. They will ask Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to provide them with a more conservative leader to oversee a new province that will be separate from the Episcopal Church.

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