- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Episcopal Church plans to intervene in a property dispute involving two Northern Virginia parishes that voted to leave the American denomination last month, officials with the departing congregations said.

The intervention would mark a dramatic shift in the relationship between the national church and individual dioceses.

Truro Church in Fairfax and the Falls Church are among nine parishes in Virginia that voted to leave the Episcopal Church last month over issues of biblical authority and sexuality. The departing congregations make up about 10 percent of the Virginia diocese’s estimated 90,000 members.

Truro and the Falls Church are fighting for an estimated $27 million to $37 million in property.

“The prior presiding bishop took the position that property disputes are in the purview of the diocese,” said Jim Oakes, senior warden at Truro. “The current presiding bishop seems to be taking a different position.”

Bob Williams, communications director for the Episcopal Church, said there’s more at stake than land.

“The leadership of the Episcopal Church has a moral … responsibility to guard that property for the use of future generations,” he said.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori issued a statement on the dispute last month.

“The Episcopal Church is going to be there in partnership with the Diocese of Virginia to help bring healing in any way that we can, and to continue to remind everybody that we are engaged in larger mission,” Bishop Jefferts Schori told the Episcopal News Service.

Officials with the departing churches say they have received a different message.

“We know what their attorneys told our attorneys,” said Jim Pierobon, a spokesman for Truro and Falls Church. “It’s a significant change at the very top of the Episcopal Church.”

David Booth Beers, a D.C. attorney who serves as chancellor to the presiding bishop, declined to comment.

Episcopal officials also remain tight-lipped about the dispute.

A 30-day moratorium on any legal action — agreed upon last month by the Diocese of Virginia and representatives from the breakaway parishes — expires Wednesday.

The diocese announced Tuesday that it would not seek to renew the agreement. Patrick Getlein, secretary of the diocese, said he can’t speculate about what will happen next.

“The fact is no decisions have been made and no actions taken on these issues, as we remain honor-bound by the [moratorium] until it expires on Jan. 17,” Mr. Getlein wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Times. “The only decision made was not to renew.”

Leaders from the breakaway parishes expressed disappointment at the diocese’s announcement.

“We’ve let the diocese know in every way we possibly can that we want to settle this amicably and have been very firm about that,” Mr. Oakes said.

The Rev. Rick Wright, senior associate rector of the Falls Church, said lawsuits aren’t the only answer.

He said the diocese’s annual council, which meets later this month in Richmond to elect a new Virginia bishop and vote on other legislation, presents an opportunity to settle the matter out of court.

“I would hope the annual council and the whole body of the diocese would review this decision and possibly return to the negotiating table,” Mr. Wright said. “My understanding is that it does not lead inevitably to litigation.”

The parishes are prepared to handle a potential lawsuit. Neither Truro nor the Falls Church have discussed alternate worship sites or other would-be scenarios.

“We are not concerned or fearful about our legal position,” Mr. Oakes said.

No parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, which includes Montgomery, Prince George’s, Charles and St. Mary’s counties in Maryland and the District, have discussed leaving the Episcopal Church, diocesan spokesman Jim Naughton said.

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