A longstanding dispute over property rights in Northern Virginia between the Episcopal Church and the Convocation of Anglicans in North America will be heard by the Virginia Supreme Court April 13th.
Two appeals will be presented to the court, one by the Episcopal Church and one by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The denomination will challenge the state's "Division Statute," which they argue is unconstitutional. The church lost property valued at approximately $30 million during a 2008 ruling by the Fairfax Circuit Court, which granted CANA ownership of the property.
“It’s regrettable that we find ourselves here, but it’s also absolutely necessary to safeguard our church and to safeguard the legacy of our members,” said Henry Burt, secretary and chief of staff for the Diocese of Virginia.
In late 2006 and early 2007, 11 parishes in Northern Virginia seceded from the Episcopal Church and joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. The Fairfax Circuit Court ruled that these parishes were allowed to keep church property that previously belonged to the Episcopal Church.
The Anglican District of Virginia followed the protocol of the 1867 "Division Statute," but the Episcopal Church claims the ruling under the statute was unconstitutional. The argument of whether or not the state should be able to determine what is and is not a split within the church is a big determinant in their argument.
“These people left. They didn’t split our church. They just left,” said Burt.
In the event of division within a congregation, the “Division Statute” grants the church the right to decide property ownership based on majority vote. When the 11 congregations voted, some of the parishes voted as low as 70 percent while others voted an overwhelming 100 percent to sever ties with the Episcopal Church.
The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia share interest in fighting the statute. Not only do they want to re-gain ownership of lost parishes, but they disagree with state involvement in the loss of their sacred ground.
“The government is not allowed to establish a church or to tell a denomination how and what they believe,” said Burt. “In this case, the statute does both.”
The diocese wants the Virginia Supreme Court to send the case back down to the trial court and reconsider the ruling. Burt said the court should have to consider its canons and constitution as well as the structure of the Episcopal Church before making a final decision.
The Anglican District of Virginia tried to reach an agreement with the Episcopal Church before the case originally went to court, even offering to purchase the property. Despite the arguments of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican District of Virginia does not regret breaking away from the church.
“We’re confident in our position. We’re confident that we’ve stayed a very strong and valid legal case, that the statute is constitutional, but we never wanted to be here. We never wanted to be in this situation,” said Jim Oakes, chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia.
Divisions began in the Episcopal Church after the 2003 general convention. The main issue sending Episcopalians to Anglican congregations was the decision by the Episcopal Church to ordain a homosexual man as a bishop.
Another issue that caused separation was a series of controversial statements by the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, about there being more than one means to salvation.
“We felt that the Episcopal Church had departed from biblical teaching and departed from the authority of Scripture,” said Oakes. “We felt that for our own survival as churches we had to separate from the Episcopal Church.”
Two of the 11 churches owned no church property and already settled with the Episcopal Church. The remaining nine are Church of the Apostles, Truro Church, The Falls Church, Church of the Epiphany, St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Church of Our Saviour, Church of the Word, St. Paul’s in Haymarket and St. Stephen’s in Heathsville.
The court decision will determine if the case needs to be moved back to the circuit court to be reconsidered. As of now, the property belongs to the Anglican District of Virginia. The hearing will be open to the public.