Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Rev. John Yates runs his hand over a pockmarked tombstone in the courtyard of Falls Church Episcopal, touching just a portion of the history embedded on the grounds of the nearly 275-year-old church.

“See these notches?” said Mr. Yates, the church’s rector. “During the Civil War, soldiers used this as target practice. There are a lot of little stories like that around here.”

The historic church and its congregation soon could be parted, as church leaders weigh joining scores of parishes across the country that have left the Episcopal denomination because of the 2003 ordination of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the church’s first openly homosexual bishop.

According to canon law, a church leaving a diocese must forfeit its property to the diocese, meaning the congregation would lose its $17 million in property and assets — including its treasured landmarks. The Virginia Senate last year tabled a bill that would have allowed churches to split and retain their property.

“There are individuals who love the religious property, and they’ve almost made an icon of the property,” said Sam Thomsen, former senior warden at the church. However, “our faith is more important than the property,” he said. “On the one hand, the property can’t be judged the all-in-all. On the other hand, the property is something worth protecting.”

The story of the Falls Church is intertwined with American lore: George Washington served on a panel tasked with rebuilding the church in 1767. Francis Scott Key helped reopen its doors for worship in the early 1800s.

According to tradition, the Declaration of Independence was read to local residents on the south steps of the church, the namesake for the city of Falls Church.

Actions taken this year by Episcopal bishops at the General Convention, which opens Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, could cause more parishes — including the Falls Church — to part ways with the denomination.

But Mr. Yates, who has served as rector since 1979, said the problems in the Episcopal Church started well before 2003 and stem from a shift in “fundamental attitudes toward the authority of Scripture.”

“The election of Bishop Robinson was really just a tipping point in an extremely long process in changes in our denomination,” Mr. Yates said. “Probably the bulk of the people in the Episcopal Church have decided that the teachings of Scripture on [homosexuality] are no longer relevant.”

The rift has placed the Falls Church — whose 14-year-old, $7 million worship center sits next to the historic church — in a precarious, but still powerful, position.

According to 2004 statistics, it is the second-largest church in the Diocese of Virginia, the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church, with about 90,000 members. The Falls Church boasts as many as 3,500 members.

In 2004, the church abandoned plans to build a $25 million education center because it did not want to cede the property to the diocese in the event of a split — but it still raised about $7 million and has used about $5 million to pay for costs associated with the project.

“People don’t want to give to an expansion unless they know who owns the property,” church administrator William Deiss said.

The church’s operating budget of $5 million also exceeds the diocese’s budget of about $4.3 million.

“Their departure would be a devastating blow to the Diocese of Virginia for a number of reasons,” said the Rev. J. Philip Ashey, pastor of South Riding Episcopal Church, the first congregation to depart the diocese after the Robinson ordination. “I think many people look to the Falls Church for leadership.”

The diocese’s bishop, the Rt. Rev. Peter J. Lee, supported the Robinson consecration with his vote, but has said homosexuals will not be ordained within the diocese itself.

Mr. Yates said the Falls Church has made no decision and has no current plans to break with the diocese, but the church has sent a letter to Bishop Lee calling for him to “repent and return to the truth” about his support of the Robinson ordination. Church leaders also are talking with the bishop about plans to retain the property if a split might occur.

In one contingency, the church would make “generous financial payments” to the diocese in recognition of its former ties.

Another plan — one not favored by Mr. Yates — would call for contesting the case in court.

“There’s no animosity,” said Patrick Getlein, a spokesman for the diocese. “I know that John and Bishop Lee have a good relationship. They certainly respect each other, and I think that’s one of the great things that has held them together in dialogue.”

For Mr. Yates, the property issue is one of many challenges he may face soon. A decision to leave would mean forging ahead as an independent church or finding a new Anglican communion to join — either overseas or here in the United States.

“It’s very tricky,” he said. “I’ve learned over the years that if you act in haste, you often make mistakes. We don’t honestly know what’s going to happen in the future.”

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