Monday, December 18, 2006

Eight Northern Virginia churches announced yesterday they will leave the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia after their congregations voted overwhelmingly to depart because of liberal trends in the 2.2-million-member Episcopal Church.

A surprised murmur ran through the packed sanctuary at the 275-year-old Falls Church, the largest and most historic of the departing congregations, as the Rev. John Yates announced the vote. His members voted 1,228 to 127 to leave the diocese, and 1,279 to 77 to fight to keep the congregation’s historic property in the city of Falls Church.

“God is going to lead this church forward in ministry,” said Mr. Yates, whose congregation grew by 4 percent this year and whose budget rose 15 percent from $4.6 million for 2006 to $5.6 million in 2007. “This whole situation isn’t about us. It’s about the next generation and the next and the next … For the sake of the children, we must be faithful to Christ.”

A ninth parish, St. Paul’s in Haymarket, also voted yesterday on whether to leave the diocese but will not report the results until today.

The departing congregations comprise about 10 percent of the diocese’s 90,000 members and about 17 percent of the 32,000 people in the pew on an average Sunday. Virginia Episcopalians have been in an ecclesiastical civil war since the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, an active homosexual, with the support of Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee.

“I wasn’t at all surprised,” said Kim Cooke, a former vestry member. “This church has always made a point of being faithful to the Scriptures and God. When faced with a choice between man and God, it was an easy choice.”

“I am thrilled at the results,” longtime member Judy Thomsen said. “I think we need to move on.”

Most of the departing churches will affiliate with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a Fairfax-based organization under the Anglican Diocese of Nigeria, headed up by Archbishop Peter J. Akinola. Martyn Minns, the rector at Truro Church in Fairfax, was appointed its bishop and will head its approximately 25 U.S. congregations.

Bishop Minns said the total of his congregations’ average Sunday attendance will outstrip the same figure in 50 Episcopal dioceses.

A 10th church, All Saints in Dale City, which announced its results Dec. 10, will affiliate with the Anglican Diocese of North Kigezi, Uganda.

Bishop Lee said he was “saddened” by the votes and used battle imagery to describe the departing churches — “Nigerian congregations occupying Episcopal churches.”

He is calling a meeting of the diocesan executive board and standing committee, both advisory bodies, along with diocesan lawyers, to meet today on how to handle the departing congregations. He repeated his longtime stance that the Diocese owns the churches’ property.

The vote in the eight parishes that reported results was overwhelmingly in favor of leaving the Episcopal Church, with the closest vote coming at St. Stephen’s Church in Heathsville, 75 percent of whose members voted to leave. A lot of cradle Episcopalians were loath to cut ties, reported its senior warden, Ward LeHardy.

“Some have been in this church all their lives,” he said. “For those in the old, established church, it’s hard to let go.”

Truro Church, which lost several dozen families after the Robinson consecration, delivered an overwhelming mandate to leave. Its members voted 1,010 to 85 to leave and 1,034 to 55 percent to fight for its property.

“A new day has begun,” Jim Oakes, senior warden of Truro Church’s vestry, or governing board, announced at a crowded morning service. Several of Truro’s members appeared stunned and sad, including Carolyn Crocker, who brushed away tears.

“Oh, I’m just like this,” she said after adding she had voted to leave. “There are 85 people hurting here,” referring to those who had voted “no” on the first ballot.

“Actually,” said J.T. Griffith, another member, “I’m delighted. But we’re being studiously restrained here as we don’t want to put on a triumphalist display.”

The lopsided results were no accident, said Tom Wilson, senior warden at the Falls Church.

“This was the fruit of those two rectors tending their vineyards,” he said of Mr. Yates and Bishop Minns. “By standing in their pulpits for many years, teaching the Bible to their congregants, when it came to this crisis, their congregants responded with an overwhelming vote.”

The Rev. Robin Adams, rector of the departing Church of the Word in Gainesville and an executive board member, said yesterday he was asked by the diocese to not attend today’s meeting.

“I think what will happen is the diocese will negotiate in good faith with all these churches,” he said. “They also don’t want to be forced into multimillion-dollar lawsuits.”

In a press conference, Bishop Minns, along with more than a dozen other departing priests, said CANA’s congregations will be “sensitive” to the concerns of those members that voted to remain in the Episcopal Church. As for the diocese: “We believe it can be worked out.”

“My hope is we’ll deal with these negotiations behind closed doors instead of on microphones,” he said.

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