Friday, April 4, 2008

A Fairfax circuit judge has awarded a favorable judgment to a group of 11 Anglican churches that were taken to court last fall after breaking away from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in late 2006.

In an 83-page opinion released late last night, Judge Randy Bellows ruled that Virginia’s Civil War-era division statute granting property to departing congregations applies to the Northern Virginia congregations, which are now part of the Nigerian-administered Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

The court finds that a division has occurred in the diocese, the judge wrote. Over 7 percent of the churches in the diocese, 11 percent of its baptized membership and 18 percent of the diocesan average attendance of 32,000 [per Sunday] have left in the past two years.

The lawsuit, which is the largest property case to date in the history of the Episcopal Church, involves millions of dollars of real estate and assets. With the finding that a division has occurred, the congregations get to keep the property — for now — under Virginia law.A trial to resolve the property issue is slated for October.

Because the diocese and the national Episcopal Church are challenging the constitutionality of Virginia’s division statute, the judge has already scheduled arguments for that trial for May 28.

The Virginia diocese released a statement referring to constitutional issues.

“At issue is the governments ability to intrude into the freedom of the Episcopal Church and other churches to organize and govern themselves according to their faith and doctrine,” said Henry Burt, diocesan spokesman. “The implications of the courts ruling reach beyond the Episcopal Church and the property issues before us. The constitutional issues, on which the Court explicitly did not rule, have implications for every church in Virginia.”

We are pleased with this initial victory today,” saidJim Oakes, vice-chairman of Anglican District of Virginia, to which the 11 churches now belong. “We have maintained all along that the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia had no legal right to our property because the Virginia division statute says that the majority of the church is entitled to its property when there is a division within the denomination. Our churches’ own trustees hold title for the benefit of the congregations.

The 11 parishes, which include some of Virginia’s most historic churches such as Truro Episcopal in Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church, voted in December 2006 to leave the Episcopal Church over longstanding disputes on biblical authority and human sexuality, most specifically the consecration of the openly gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson.

The Episcopal Church has been called to repent the Robinson consecration by much of the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and its standing as the U.S. representative of Anglicanism is in question over the issue.

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