- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2008

I’ve been covering the Episcopal Church since 1986 and have taken a special interest in the largest property dispute in the denomination’s history.

Ever since the openly gay Canon V. Gene Robinson was elected Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, conservatives have been fleeing. Many have tried to take their property with them, including 11 congregations in northern Virginia. These 11 are being sued by the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

The conservatives, now gathered under the banner of the Anglican Diocese of Virginia (ADV) say the diocese reneged in late 2006 on secret negotiations that allowed the departing 11 to buy their way out of the diocese. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori admitted in a taped deposition last fall before Fairfax Circuit Judge Randy I. Bellows that she forced the diocese to sue instead of negotiate.

The big question is how much money both sides are spending on this debacle. Today, the Rev. John Yates, rector of the Falls Church, the largest of the 11 congregations at 2,500 members, will ask congregants for a “one-time special sacrificial gift” - his words - to make up for a $300,000 shortfall in contributions.

The church recently slashed its $6 million budget by 5.4 percent.

Judge Bellows’ decision to allow some 250 years worth of records to be reviewed for the case “puts a burden on us we had hoped to avoid,” he wrote. “The costs of defending our church are great.”

The ADV folks say they have raised and spent $2.1 million; $1.3 million of which has come from the Falls Church, $1 million from Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, $400,000 from Church of the Apostles in Fairfax and the rest from the remaining eight churches.

Neal Brown, the rector of St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Woodbridge - formerly St. Margaret’s Episcopal - said his congregation of 170 souls eked out $40,000 from their operating budget for legal fees.

“Things are so bad, we can’t make any color copies on our copy machine,” he told me.

Jim Oakes, vice president of the ADV, says there has been talk of “going to the wider Christian community” to plead for funds. This could get interesting.

“The Episcopal Church seems to be determined to take this until the bitter end,” he said. “We are concerned about how we’ll handle this next round around the track. We don’t have many deep pockets underwriting this.”

As for the diocese, it’s hard to get a straight answer. Hart Burt, its spokesman, tells me its expenses are “approaching $2 million” but won’t give an exact amount. The diocese announced in January it had taken out a $2 million line of credit and Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter Lee used the $2 million figure in a Jan. 25 speech about how much money had been spent.

Surely money has gone out of diocesan coffers since then.

As for the national Episcopal Church, it has been mum to the point that four retired bishops last fall demanded the church give an accounting. A Nov. 29 response from Executive Council members Josephine Hicks and John Vanderstar only said “the church is receiving extraordinary value for the funds it does expend.”

Undeterred, the bishops - joined by a fifth prelate - began telling reporters the denomination may be violating federal pension laws by using restricted endowment funds to fund the lawsuits. They wrote a second letter, asking what the church’s chancellor, D.C. lawyer David Booth Beers, is charging for his time on the cases.

“We understand that David Booth Beers normally charges $600 per hour, but gives the Episcopal Church a 15 percent discount, or a reduced charge of $510,” they wrote. “… How much money has 815 2nd Avenue/executive council spent on litigation, and where did the funds come from?”

They never got a decent response.

Julia Duin’s column appears on Thursdays and Sundays. She can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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