The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, reeling over the loss of one-tenth of its 90,000 members this past weekend, stepped back from earlier threats to sue yesterday, instead calling for a 30-day moratorium on lawsuits and property transfers.
Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee said his “primary concern” was for the tiny minorities of members in the departing churches who do not wish to leave the diocese and said the next month should be used to help these “faithful Episcopalians who need to be given every encouragement to establish structures necessary for their continuity as the Episcopal Church.”
The statement yesterday said Bishop Lee had authorized “a standstill agreement with those who have chosen to leave, to avoid litigation for a period of 30 days.”
But Bishop Lee also reiterated the diocese’s legal stance, referring to “our churches” where the “membership has now been significantly reduced.” The statement also announced the formation of a Property Commission to “meet with departing members to discuss real and personal property matters on a case-by-case basis” and to advise the bishop.
“As I have said previously, our polity maintains that all real and personal property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church and the Diocese,” Bishop Lee said. “As stewards of this historic trust, we fully intend to assert the Church’s canonical and legal rights over these properties.”
Jim Pierobon, a spokesman for the two largest churches to break away over the weekend, expressed surprise at Bishop Lee’s statement, but had no further comment.
It is not clear how Bishop Lee proposes to set up such a system for Episcopalians who wish to remain in the diocese, as most of the departing churches aim to keep their property. Some have incorporated, allowing them to retain the name of the church under U.S. law if the bishop should sue to force them off their property.
His remarks were said after a daylong meeting with members of his standing committee and executive board summoned to Richmond to deal with the worst crisis in the diocese’s 211-year history. The diocese released new figures yesterday saying as many as 15 churches are expected to leave.
The defections represent more than 7 percent of the churches in the diocese, but they have 11 percent of its baptized membership and 18 percent of the diocesan average Sunday attendance of 32,000.
The dispute, which concerns biblical authority and sexuality, was brought to a boil in the U.S. by the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, a practicing homosexual. Conservatives in the Virginia Diocese were furious with Bishop Lee for supporting the consecration and made plans to leave.
The exodus began with three mission churches pulling out in the past year. Then on Dec. 10, All Saints Episcopal in Dale City announced that, having struck a property settlement with the diocese, 98 percent of its members had voted to leave. Eight Episcopal churches announced Sunday that they would leave the Diocese of Virginia, and yesterday the historic St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Haymarket joined them. Two more Episcopal churches in Herndon and Oatlands are expected to vote to leave early next year.
Ian Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., said the magnitude of the exodus, the size of the congregations and historical value of the church properties involved sets this apart from any other conservative pullout since 2003. He also noted most of the churches leaving Sunday were only a few miles from Washington on a slow news day.
“They’re in a major news market,” he said. “Let’s not fool ourselves. Timing, choice of action and access to getting one’s word out all played into this.”
Plus, one of the conservative rectors, Martyn Minns of Truro Church in Fairfax, is the newly appointed bishop of a group for dissenting parishes set up under the Anglican Diocese of Nigeria and Archbishop Peter J. Akinola. Called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), its offices are across the street from Truro.
The departing conservatives say they no longer trust Bishop Lee to shepherd them; hence their plans to affiliate with CANA.
“We are deeply saddened that the American Episcopal Church has surrendered its core beliefs and practices,” the Rev. David N. Jones, rector of St. Paul’s, said yesterday. “Members of St. Paul’s who are lifelong Episcopalians no longer recognize the teachings and practices now being promoted by the leadership of the Episcopal Church.”
More than 90 percent of St. Paul’s members voted to leave on two ballot measures: 93-6 to leave the denomination and 95-4 to fight to retain their property.
Its brick building was first used in 1801 as a district courthouse for Fairfax, Fauquier, Loudoun and Prince William counties. Converted to an Episcopal Church in 1822, it was used by both sides as a hospital during the Civil War before Union troops converted it to a stable in 1862, then burned it. It was rebuilt in 1867.
Still, Mr. Douglas noted about CANA, liturgical Christians generally do not choose their own bishop.
“The episcopacy is generally not a voluntary association but rather a bishop in one place recognized by the broader church,” he said. “It’s not like you can pick and choose your bishop as an Anglican.”
Besides St. Paul’s, the nine churches that have left this month include: Christ the Redeemer in Centreville; Church of the Apostles and Truro Church, both in Fairfax; Church of the Word in Gainesville; the Falls Church in Falls Church; Potomac Falls in Sterling, St. Margaret’s in Woodbridge; St. Stephen’s in Heathsville and All Saints in Dale City.