Two years ago this week, nine Episcopal churches staged a dramatic walkout from the Diocese of Virginia, followed by two more the following month.
On the afternoon of Dec. 17 at Truro Church, about two dozen clergy showed up to say they and their churches were parting ways with a diocese they saw as compromised on Scripture and the role of homosexuality in the church. Three years before, the entire Virginia delegation to the Episcopal General Convention in Minneapolis had approved the election of a gay Episcopal bishop: V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
All of the 11 departing churches had gone through a 40-day discernment process during the fall of 2006 on whether to leave the denomination and the diocese.
Sometimes it’s the smaller stories that don’t always get told. I had heard of a 12th church, St. Peter’s in the Woods in Fairfax Station, that also was considering leaving and was going through the 40-day regimen. It was a mission - that is, a church still dependent on diocesan support. They had 300 members at one time but were starting to lose adherents because of the uproar over Bishop Robinson.
By the time St. Peter’s voted in March 2007, facts had changed drastically. The diocese already had threatened to sue the leave-takers. It already canceled - with very little notice - the health plans of the clergy involved, making the ministers scramble to find other coverage.
The bank account of one of the departing - St. Stephen’s in Heathsville, Va. - had been frozen by its bank because two groups were laying claim to the assets. This made it impossible for the majority who left - and who had hung onto the property - to pay anything from utility bills to salaries.
Plus, the diocese held the deed to St. Peter’s property. So the folks at St. Peter’s voted to stay. Their vicar, Bob Koth, wanted out.
“I respected the congregation’s wishes,” he told me. “I struggled with the decision to stay in the Episcopal Church. As things dragged out, we were late in taking that vote.”
St. Peter’s ended up losing 50 percent of its members. Mr. Koth went on a leave of absence, then left the church in December 2007. By that point, the congregation was down to 150 members.
“We were a small mission church,” Mr. Koth said, “so they didn’t have the strength to withstand what happened.”
In April, he was hired at the Falls Church, the largest of the 11 departing congregations. Amazingly, the 11, now part of the Anglican District of Virginia, have won a series of legal battles with the diocese to keep their property. A fourth and final court decision comes out Friday.
Marvin Lawley, senior warden at St. Peter’s, told me things there are looking up and that 14 new families have arrived.
“We made more impact by staying than by going away,” he said.
A new vicar, the Rev. DeDe Duncan-Probe, arrives from Boston in two months. Virginia Suffragan Bishop David Jones, who helped found the mission church in 1989, told me the congregation is “on the rebound.”
Interestingly, the bishop, who has responsibility for the diocese’s 45 mission congregations, revealed no new missions have been established since 2004. Most of the churches that were starting daughter congregations left and right were those that walked out in 2006.
But the diocese hung onto St. Peter’s, giving it $35,000 to help it through hard times.
Julia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at email@example.com.