VIRGINIA: Diocesan Leadership Declares Church Property 'Abandoned'
For release: Thursday, January 18, 2007
Contact: Patrick Getlein 1-800-346-2373 x 30
Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
Today, January 18, 2007, the Executive Board of the Diocese of Virginia took a step forward in preserving the mission and ministry of the Diocese and the Episcopal Church for current and future generations of Episcopalians and adopted a resolution concerning the property of 11 Episcopal Churches where a majority of members – including the vestry and clergy – have left The Episcopal Church but have not relinquished Church property and have continued to occupy the churches and use the property owned by the Diocese.
Specifically, the Executive Board declared the property of those churches – real and personal – to be abandoned in accordance with the Canons of the Diocese.
"All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Church or Mission within this Diocese is held in trust for The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia." (Canon 15.1)
"No part of the real property of a Church, except abandoned property, shall be alienated, sold, exchanged, encumbered or otherwise transferred for any purpose without the consent of the congregation ... [and] the Bishop, acting with the advice and consent of the Standing Committee of the Diocese." (Canon 15.2)
Having declared the property abandoned for the purposes for which it is set aside, namely the mission of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia, the Executive Board is required to protect the property, according to the Canons:
"[W]henever any property, real or personal, formerly owned or used by any congregation of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia for any purpose for which religious congregations are authorized to hold property under the provisions of the Code of Virginia or any amendment thereof, has ceased to be so occupied or used by such congregation, so that the same may be regarded as abandoned property by the Executive Board, which shall have the authority to declare such property abandoned and shall have the authority to take charge and custody thereof, the Executive Board shall take such steps as may be necessary to transfer the property to the Bishop..." (Canon 15.3)
The unanimous decision by the Executive Board also authorizes the Bishop to take such steps as may be necessary to recover or secure such real and personal property.
In addition, the Standing Committee met today for its regular monthly meeting and took up the issue of the status of the clergy attached to these congregations. Following today’s meeting the Standing Committee will communicate its determination to the Bishop according to the Canons.
The 11 churches where property has been declared abandoned are:
Church of the Redeemer, Chantilly
Church of the Apostles, Fairfax
Church of the Epiphany, Herndon
Church of Our Saviour, Oatlands
Church of the Word, Gainesville
Potomac Falls Church, Sterling
St. Margaret’s, Woodbridge
St. Paul’s, Haymarket
St. Stephen’s, Heathsville
The Falls Church, Falls Church
A Letter to The Diocese of Virginia from the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, Bishop
January 18, 2007
Today, the leadership of the Diocese of Virginia, supported by the prayers of faithful Episcopalians in this Diocese and around the world, took action to preserve the sacred mission entrusted to us by previous generations for the future of the Church here in Virginia and across the Episcopal Church.
At the heart of our faith, is the reliability of the promises of God to God’s people. Nowhere is that reliability more clearly affirmed than in the promises of God that his exiled people will be returned to Jerusalem, to their spiritual home. (Jer. 36)
Because we believe that God’s promises to his people continue to be reliable, we will seek the return of the churches of the Diocese of Virginia that are occupied by dissidents.
We are commanded by scripture to obey the civil authority. (Rom. 13) While St. Paul admonishes individual Christians to avoid lawsuits with one another, obedience to the rule of law is a more controlling teaching. We believe the law supports diocesan ownership of church property.
In some of our congregations, members led by their lay and ordained leadership, have voted to leave The Episcopal Church and to affiliate with a non-recognized organization of churches purportedly under the authority of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola. The organization is known as CANA, or Convocation of Anglicans in North America.
The Church of Nigeria, like The Episcopal Church, is an autonomous province of the Anglican Communion with clearly defined boundaries. Bonds of affection in the Anglican Communion hold that provincial boundaries are not crossed by bishops without expressed invitation. Bishop Akinola’s effort to establish CANA within the boundaries of The Episcopal Church has occurred without any invitation or authorization whatsoever and violates centuries of established Anglican heritage. As the Archbishop of Canterbury has made clear, CANA is not a branch of the Anglican Communion and does not have his encouragement.
When the membership of these congregations voted to sever their ties with the Episcopal Church and affiliate with CANA, they left remaining Episcopal congregations in those places without vestries, without clergy and without their churches, whether the remaining congregations numbered one or 100 souls. The spiritual abandonment of their Episcopal brothers and sisters of the past, the present and the future, is perhaps the greatest offense for which there is no redress under our tradition.
In the structure of the Episcopal Church, individuals may come and go but parishes continue. And in some of these churches there is life springing from these dry bones. At St. Stephen’s in Heathsville, the remaining Episcopal congregation, a full third of the congregation before the vote to leave, has held a congregational meeting, elected a vestry, elected a delegate to Council and currently is worshiping at a nearby United Methodist Church until they can be reunited with their Episcopal Church property. In Woodbridge, a growing congregation of 50 Episcopalians of St. Margaret’s Church will hold their congregational meeting this Sunday, elect a vestry, confirm their previously elected delegate to Council and will continue to worship at a nearby location until they, too, can reenter their Episcopal church. Similar groups are organizing at The Falls Church, and there are nearly 100 people at the Church of the Epiphany in Herndon who may reorganize and continue as the Episcopal Church in that place.
It is for these persons that previous generations of Episcopalians worshiped, worked, prayed and gave generously for the spread of the Kingdom of God. It is the trust that they created, and that we inherited, which now we must move to protect, preserve and expand for generations to come.
For years diocesan leadership has worked to accommodate the views of the leadership of these churches. We have resisted attempts to deny them seat, voice and vote at the Annual Council when they stopped funding the budget of the Diocese. They have enjoyed access to our diocesan-managed medical and dental benefits. They have enjoyed other diocesan resources like grant funding for church planting, mission work and congregational development, Shrine Mont and Roslyn. I have met dozens of times with the leadership of these churches and with their counsel in an effort to find common ground on matters of theology. Three times I invited the retired Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey to conduct confirmations and receptions when my episcopal presence was either specifically refused or would have been a source of tension for the membership. I endured being told that the parents of confirmands would not want me to lay hands on their children at confirmation and I have received other personal attacks including death wishes in letters, reports and public statements.
I have tried to find a way forward in our dispute over property that would keep us from having to resort to civil courts. No longer am I convinced that such an outcome is possible, nor do I believe that such a move at this time is dishonorable. Rather, I believe as does the leadership of our Diocese and of our Church, that the actions taken to secure our property are consistent with our mission and with our fiduciary and moral obligations to the Church of our ancestors, to the church we serve today, and to the church of those who will follow us.
The votes to separate from The Episcopal Church negated all the work we had done in good faith over the years to accommodate the views of the leadership of these churches and focused our attention on the only two remaining factors: the status of clergy and the status of property. The work of the Property Commission, which assembled immediately after the votes to separate, brought together the years of efforts at accommodation and the previous year of discussion over matters of property and clergy status. As that work was brought into the Property Commission’s view and shared with the Executive Board, Standing Committee and with counsel for the separated churches, it became clear that no position other than relinquishing our claim to Episcopal Church property would be satisfactory to those who have left. There would be no serious effort at reaching a fair market price for property. There would be no discussion of the issues on a case by case basis. There was repeated desire to wrap issues of clergy status, including matters having to do with clergy pensions, into the discussion of church property, an inappropriate bundling of unrelated issues. It became clear that the process of negotiation would be unduly cumbersome and would risk further a second alienation of those loyal Episcopalians who had already been disenfranchised by the vote of the majority of their former members.
Recently, attorneys for the dissidents sent a letter threatening action against me and any other diocesan officials who “set foot on” or “trespass” on Episcopal Church property. By contrast, your leadership has not moved to change locks or freeze assets. Rather, once again, we have moved to accommodate these dissidents at the expense of our faithful people.
Following the votes of the majority of members of these congregations, the counsel of these now non-Episcopal congregations filed reports with the clerks of the courts in their jurisdictions under a statute in the Code of Virginia that they think gives them the right to Episcopal Church property. We have intervened in that action. We are supported in this by The Episcopal Church on a national level. It is with a heavy heart that your leadership has moved in this direction, but it is not without a long period of efforts at accommodation and negotiation.
These 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.
In the coming days and months there will be many opinions aired in the media, in letters and in countless blogs, opinions disguised as facts. I urge you to turn away from those as the distracting noise of the world intended to take your mind and your heart off the mission of the Church. Instead, I urge you to pray for our brothers and sisters who have moved to separate themselves from us. I urge us to remember that in their call away from the Episcopal Church, they may be responding to a genuine call to new ministry in a different place and in a different way. The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia will mourn their loss. We will suffer from their absence in ways we cannot know at this time in our life. I believe that they, too, will know times when our absence from their life will be a source of great sorrow for them.
My dear brothers and sisters, the Church in these communities may look different moving forward. We will look different as a Diocese. And the road ahead will be long and filled with opportunities to lose heart. We must always have our eyes fixed on God, not be anxious, and trust in the reliability of God’s promises. For even in this, God is doing a new thing.
Peter James Lee
On the Mainline
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