Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.”
I Kings 3:26
On April 30, in the absence of a stay until an appeal can be heard, seven congregations in Virginia will be forced to vacate or deed over their property to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The congregations had voted to separate from the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC) over questions of the authority of the Scripture triggered by the ordination of Gene Robinson as Bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003. Robinson had left his wife to enter a relationship with another man.
The dissident congregations have been forced out by a decision of the Virginia Supreme Court reversing a 2008 decision by Judge Randy Bellows and remanding the case to the 19th circuit (Fairfax County). Based on a Reconstruction-era Virginia law, Judge Bellows had previously decided in favor of the dissident congregations, allowing them to keep their property. As a result of the new trial the case has been decided in favor of The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
The dissenting congregations have become members of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). CANA is a newly formed communion of churches who have separated from The Episcopal Church in the United States and its affiliated bishops. (See my previous blog of July 2008, Will the Real Anglicans Please Stand-Up?).
The national church, which has pursued a policy of litigation against dissenting congregations, has found itself involved in similar outcomes across the country. As noted in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal, victory in these cases has often left them with spaces unusable to the dioceses of The Episcopal Church (TEC). According to the article, “Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori says this new Anglican group is encroaching on her church’s jurisdiction, and she has authorized dozens of lawsuits ‘to protect the assets of the Episcopal Church for the mission of the Episcopal Church.’” The goal according to various spokespersons has been to return the properties to “the mission of the Episcopal Church.” To accomplish this goal, the national church has vigorously pursued the “remedy” of litigation.
According to reports, Southern Baptists and even a Muslim mosque have been the beneficiaries of property sales resulting from the outcome of litigation. One can only conclude the outcome has been to “divide the living child.” It becomes puzzling at this point to understand just which essential mission of TEC is being protected.
The dissident CANA congregations include the historic Truro Church, an early pioneer in the charismatic movement in the Episcopal Church, The Falls Church, a historic and vibrant evangelical expression of the Episcopal faith, and Church of the Apostles. I recall taking a vanload of young people from our Grace Network church in central Virginia to a youth meeting at the Church of the Apostles for a dynamic gathering of worship and teaching in the mid- 80’s. The dissident churches have been among the most vibrant local expressions of the Episcopal Church in Virginia, representing thousands of members and millions of dollars in annual budgets. Rump congregations (where they exist) have been designated the true heirs of the property by the diocese, and now, the courts.
The wider Episcopal Diocese of Virginia is facing steady decline. How can they afford to manage the formidable properties they have won in court? “According to self-reported statistics, the diocese has lost 26 percent of its attendance in the past decade and has ceased planting new churches, despite significant population growth in Virginia. With the rapid increase of the median age of Episcopalians, there may not be a ‘future generation of Episcopalians’ to worship in these properties” (“Episcopal Diocese of Virginia Faces Costs of Legal Victory”).
It seems that those who have remained vibrant must be penalized for staying with the evangelical expression which will keep them vibrant. So what will a declining diocese do with these extremely valuable and historic properties? Plant new congregations, start new ministries, sell? It seems anything is permissible except the permanent presence of a dissident Anglican Church – even if it appears to be the only viable solution.
Meanwhile, the Diocese of Virginia has formed Dayspring to lead the discernment process. According to their website, the diocese views Dayspring as the means by which they may “step back and take careful consideration of the options and possibilities that lie before us. Those involved in Dayspring will closely examine the many moving parts of the puzzle to discern the best way forward.”
Unfortunately, these battles are due to be played out across other declining mainlines as one after another forsakes the spirit of clear Biblical teaching for the zeitgeist.
The CANA churches will soldier on. Their websites (http://www.thefallschurch.org/, http://www.trurochurch.org/ ) reveal a clear and believable resolve to move forward. It will be interesting to see what will become of the properties which must eventually be abandoned. (Truro will deed property over to the diocese on April 30, but has worked out a lease agreement until June 30, 2013). In some cases, sale of non-consecrated properties (i.e. attendant non-sanctuary buildings) may be on the agenda of the Diocese of Virginia. In any event, it appears the baby must be cut in two.