Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has filed lawsuits seeking to retain the property of 11 churches whose congregations voted to leave the denomination and prohibit those congregations from using the property, the diocese announced yesterday.

The diocese filed 11 separate suits against the clergy and lay leaders of Truro Church in Fairfax, the Falls Church in Falls Church, Christ the Redeemer in Centreville, Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Church of the Epiphany in Herndon, Church of Our Saviour near Leesburg, Church of the Word in Gainesville, Potomac Falls Church in Sterling, St. Margaret’s in Woodbridge, St. Paul’s in Haymarket and St. Stephen’s in the Northern Neck.

Officials from the departing congregations said the diocese’s actions did not surprise them.

“It’s the next step in the process we expected,” said Jim Pierobon, a spokesman for the Falls Church and Truro.

The suits were filed in the circuit courts of the churches’ respective counties, which include Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Northumberland and Prince William, diocesan Secretary Patrick Getlein said.

At stake is millions of dollars in real estate, including an estimated $27 million to $37 million at Truro and the Falls Church, two of Virginia’s largest and most historic churches.

Through litigation, the diocese also seeks:

• A declaration that the congregations have made improper claims regarding Episcopal Church property.

• A court order upholding “the trust, proprietary and contract rights” of the diocese.

• A court order requiring a full accounting of “the use of all real and personal property” by the congregations.

Real property refers to actual real estate, and personal property includes tangible and intangible effects ranging from accounts to altar linen.

“We want to know, since all that property is Episcopal Church property and diocesan property, what it all consists of and what they’ve used it for,” Mr. Getlein said.

Mr. Pierobon, who attends the Falls Church, reaffirmed Truro and Falls Church’s confidence in their legal position.

Both Truro and Falls Church own the deeds to their respective properties, he said.

The Falls Church, which, along with the other departing congregations, realigned with an Anglican mission under the Church of Nigeria, has no plans to alter its worship schedule or other activities that take place at the church, Mr. Pierobon said.

Earlier this month, Virginia Bishop Peter J. Lee declared the property of the 11 churches “abandoned” and wrote in a letter to the diocese that “the differences are not about property but about the legacy we have received for the mission of Christ and our obligation to preserve that legacy for the future.”

Bishop Lee last week notified the clergy at the 11 congregations that, unless they retract their “abandonment” within six months, they risk removal from the ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church, according to Episcopal canon.

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