- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Lawyers for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and nine conservative churches that broke away two years ago tangled Monday in Fairfax Circuit Court over who owns the Falls Church, a historic Northern Virginia parish that George Washington once attended.

And on Sunday in Alexandria, members of the historic Christ Church voted overwhelmingly that, should it be proved their parish owns part of the Falls Church land, they wish to deed it to Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee. When asked about the nature of the vote and an exact tally of “yes” and “no” votes, senior warden Rawles Jones said “no comment.”

The court hearing - and the church vote - is part of a multi-trial lawsuit that has lasted a year and is thought to be the largest property lawsuit in Episcopal Church history. When conservatives left the denomination in late 2006 and early 2007, they took millions of dollars of property with them, including property dating back to Colonial times.

Circuit Judge Randy I. Bellows has ruled against the diocese several times, saying the conservatives have a right to the property, thanks to a unique Virginia state “division” statute dating back to the Civil War. The diocese, in turn, has reached back to Colonial times to help establish a claim to the land.

Monday’s trial was taken up with testimony by church historian Edward L. Bond, who told of how the Falls Church was established in the 1730s but had fallen into disuse 60 years later.

By 1798, he said, the vestry of Christ Church, founded in 1773, had taken authority over the Falls Church, as the two were in a governing structure called Fairfax Parish. Its predecessor, Truro Parish, was formed Jan. 1, 1733, by the Virginia legislature to operate the Falls Church, a church in Pohick and two smaller chapels. Fairfax Parish was created from Truro Parish in 1765 with George Washington overseeing the boundary lines between the two.

But after the Revolution, “lots of congregations fell on hard times,” Mr. Bond said, asserting that congregations like the Falls Church were being disestablished and their vestries told they could no longer tax local residents for the church’s upkeep. The Diocese of Virginia allowed the Falls Church to register as an independent congregation in 1836.

The diocese argued Monday that ownership of the Falls Church property still rested with the successor entity of Fairfax Parish, which was the vestry of Christ Church Alexandria. Their claim is based on Mason v. Muncaster, a 1824 Supreme Court case to determine land rights in the Diocese of Virginia.

Gordon Coffee, a lawyer for the breakaway churches now constituted as the Anglican District of Virginia, said that Christ Church denied responsibility for the Falls Church property in the Muncaster case.

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