Leaders of two of Virginia’s most historic Episcopal parishes have voted to split from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia, a move that could spark a legal battle over millions of dollars’ worth of property.
The vestry — or governing board — of Truro Episcopal Church, an 18th-century church in downtown Fairfax, voted unanimously Saturday to depart from the 2.2-million-member Episcopal Church over questions of biblical authority and the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, an active homosexual.
Monday night, the vestry of the Falls Church, an equally historic Virginia congregation in the city of Falls Church, voted 15-2, with one abstention, to leave the Episcopal Church, a denomination it has called home for more than 200 years.
Its rector, the Rev. John Yates, called the process a series of “terribly hard decisions” in a Nov. 14 letter to church members. His church sits on $17 million worth of prime real estate; Truro’s property is worth about $10 million.
Tom Wilson, senior warden of the Falls Church’s vestry, pointed to a parish meeting this past Sunday as a defining moment.
“The message we got from the congregation was that sadly, the theological disconnect between biblical Christianity and the road the [Episcopal] Church had chosen to walk was so profound, the time had come to separate from the denomination,” he said.
Jim Oakes, senior warden of Truro’s vestry, said the congregation was asked not to applaud when the vestry’s vote was announced during Sunday services.
“This is not a cause for celebration,” he said. “This is a time of sadness and resolve. We’re asking the congregation to join with us in affirming the decision, but it’s not a time of popping champagne corks.”
The vestries’ decisions must be ratified by a majority of each parish’s members during a congregational vote the second week of December. However, the trend among conservatives in the 90,000-member Diocese of Virginia is not to stay. Last week, the vestry of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Woodbridge recommended their church also leave, and within the past year, three mission churches have split from the diocese.
Mr. Oakes said Truro’s vestry informed Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee of its decision Tuesday afternoon by phone. As for the bishop’s reaction, “We had a candid conversation, we’ll just leave it at that,” the senior warden said.
The diocese released a short statement yesterday.
“We are very, very sad that the vestries are going to recommend to the congregations that they sever ties to the Episcopal Church,” Bishop Lee said.
But when asked during a 2004 press conference how he’d respond to an exodus of some of the most valuable and historic properties in his diocese, he referred to a private letter he once wrote on the matter.
“I said that I believe that I had a responsibility to the Episcopalians of the past,” he said, “who built the church, and to the Episcopalians of the future, who will use the church, not to stand by and let a current generation walk away with their property.”
Representatives from both parishes and the diocese have had secret negotiations for the past year over how to conduct an amicable split. Although Mr. Yates’ letter said a protocol had been agreed to by both sides, the diocese said yesterday no such agreement had been reached.
Truro and the Falls Church both intend to retain their property. The vestries have proposed joining the Anglican District of Virginia, a newly formed group of churches culled from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
It will be led by the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, the rector of Truro who was consecrated Aug. 20 in Abuja, Nigeria, as a bishop with the Anglican Province of Nigeria. Currently, he leads a new group set up by the Nigerian province called the Convocation for Anglicans in North America (CANA).
The Anglican District of Virginia will be part of CANA. The group’s offices are across the street from Truro and its Web site, www.canaconvocation.org, already has application forms for parishes to join up.