- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

A property dispute between the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and 11 churches whose congregations voted to leave the denomination took one step closer to court yesterday after the diocese’s governing body declared the churches’ property “abandoned.”

In a letter to the diocese explaining the decision, Virginia Bishop Peter James Lee indicated that litigation is likely.

“I have tried to find a way forward in our dispute over property that would keep us from having to resort to civil courts,” he wrote. “No longer am I convinced that such an outcome is possible, nor do I believe that such a move at this time is dishonorable.”

The diocese’s governing body known as the Executive Board based its decision on diocesan canons, which state that all real and personal church property is held in trust for the national church and the diocese.

Church law also requires that the board, composed of the bishop, diocesan officials and 15 elected members from the diocese, protect the property and “take such steps as may be necessary to transfer the property to the bishop.”

Ten of the 11 congregations are in Northern Virginia.

Diocesan officials didn’t specify whether or when the congregations and their leadership are required to vacate the property, what the resulting consequences might be or how court action might affect that timeline.

“I think it’s premature in the process to know exactly what will happen next,” said Patrick Getlein, secretary of the diocese, in an e-mail to The Washington Times. “Today’s action by the Board was procedural, and I think that we will have to wait and see what exactly the next steps are in due course.”

The 11 churches where property has been declared abandoned are the Falls Church in Falls Church, Truro Church in Fairfax, Christ the Redeemer in Centreville, Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Church of the Epiphany in Herndon, Church of Our Saviour near Leesburg, Church of the Word in Gainesville, Potomac Falls Church in Sterling, St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Woodbridge, St. Paul’s Church in Haymarket and St. Stephen’s Church in Heathsville.

The diocese’s Standing Committee, a 12-member advisory group to the bishop, also met yesterday to discuss the status of the churches’ clergy. The committee’s decision was not available yesterday.

“In the structure of the Episcopal Church, individuals may come and go but parishes continue,” Bishop Lee wrote in his letter, citing examples where minorities of parishioners who voted to stay in the Episcopal Church have reorganized into mini-congregations. “It is for these persons that previous generations of Episcopalians worshipped, worked, prayed and gave generously for the spread of the Kingdom of God. It is the trust that they created, and that we inherited, which now must move to protect, preserve and expand for generations to come.”

The dispute began years ago over issues of biblical authority and sexuality and was exacerbated by the consecration of the Episcopal Church’s first openly homosexual bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003.

The departing congregations make up more than 10 percent of the diocese’s estimated 90,000 members.

Truro Church and the Falls Church were among the diocese’s largest and most historic churches, with combined property worth an estimated $27 million to $37 million.

“These churches are saddened, but, sadly, not surprised at what the diocese and what the national church have elected to do,” said Jim Pierobon, a spokesman for both congregations.

Though the congregations would like to settle the matter amicably out of court, they are prepared to handle a potential lawsuit, Mr. Pierobon said.

“We have absolutely no intention of leaving,” he said. “We are fully prepared to defend our rights in court and will protect our congregations’ property titles and rights to the full extent of the law.”

The titles of the property at Truro Church and the Falls Church list lay leaders — not clergy — as trustees on behalf of the congregations, Mr. Pierobon said.

“Our lawyers, after assessing the law, have concluded that the law in Virginia favors congregations — even within large denominations such as the Episcopal Church,” he said. “Denominational trusts in congregational property are not valid in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Several other officials with the departing congregations could not be reached for comment yesterday.

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