VIRGINIA: Falls Church Anglican leaders will Appeal Property Ruling to Supreme Court
By David W. Virtue
August 13, 2013
The leaders of the largest formerly Episcopal parish in Virginia - Falls Church, Virginia - that was once affiliated with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia but broke away from the Episcopal Church over its departure from the historic faith, said this week that they plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Falls Church (Anglican) CANA congregation with some 2000 members and 7 church plants, led by the Rev. John Yates, will ask the high court to overturn the Supreme Court of Virginia's April 18 ruling in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. That state ruling upheld a 2012 decision that said The Falls Church Episcopal must be returned to the diocese even though it was built and paid for by its members.
An earlier appeal by the CANA group to the Supreme Court of Virginia for reconsideration of its unanimous decision was denied in June.
"It is unfortunate that this litigation continues," said Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon S. Johnston. "Nonetheless, we remain committed to focusing our energies on the work of the church. The Falls Church Episcopal continues to grow and thrive, and we all look forward to a time when we can put these issues behind us for good." Those sentiments were echoed by the Rev. John Ohmer, rector of The Falls Church Episcopal. "We will continue to focus not on the past, but on growing our present and future ministries," said Ohmer.
In a question and answer as to why the parish continues to litigate for the property, parish leaders believe that only four of the nine justices of the Supreme Court must agree that their case should be heard. If that happens, they will take up the case.
The cost of filing a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari will be no more than $110,000, said church leaders. "This sum is being covered through a special fund to be raised by a small group of parishioners. There will be no expenditures for this purpose from the general fund or the regular legal defense fund."
When asked if enough money had already been spent on this cause, the reply was, "If the Lord were calling us to bring the lawsuit to an end, then we would not want to spend another dime on the litigation-even if we believed success were guaranteed. The Vestry believes, however, that the church has been called to complete this step. We are looking at this as a sacrificial act that we have felt called to by the Lord.
"From the beginning of our separation from The Episcopal Church, we stepped out in faith and have been walking in faith, not fully comprehending the Lord's plan. What others might count as loss, we count as gain in our relationship with Christ."
When asked why spending money on the legal process when money could be devoted to efforts focusing on a new building where a plant could be made, the leaders responded saying, "Our intention is exactly that-to focus intensely on seeking a permanent new home for TFCA and planting ourselves there with a renewed sense of mission, a vibrant ministry to all ages and groups within our midst, and outreach to the community that surrounds us, near and far. The generous offer that we have received of support for additional legal action will mean that a possible building campaign will not be encumbered by other financial burdens."
When asked what possible advantage is there to TFCA, leaders replied, "Win or lose, we will have held to our beliefs in a faithful effort to please God. If we lose in this phase, we have not lost much that was not already lost. If we win in this phase, we will have honored the leadership role God has placed on our church in setting a precedent that may be useful to other churches wanting to separate from an apostate denomination but less able to take the stand we've taken."
How does either winning or losing glorify God? "As with everything in life, our role is to be faithful to follow God's leading; it is His role to produce the results that He sees fit. We can only seek to understand God's plan, and recognize that we don't know it fully. We trust in Him and His purposes.
"How can this be consonant with Scripture to continue resorting to the courts? "Throughout the lawsuit, we have felt that God was leading us to defend our property from the actions of The Episcopal Church and our former Diocese. John Yates addressed the issue from a Scriptural standpoint when we set out on this course in 2006. Sadly, we believe that we are dealing with a denomination that has lost its way, and that this is not a simple situation of two believers caught in a dispute. We also take encouragement from the fact that Paul, too, was not averse to availing himself of the Roman court system, appealing all the way to Rome. We know that faith sometimes requires perseverance over long periods. Joshua did not circle Jericho 4 times and then quit, or 5 times and then quit, or 6 times and then quit. He only quit when he had done all that the Lord asked of him and the walls fell."
What were the things the Vestry took into consideration when making this decision? "We prayerfully and mightily wrestled with and weighed this decision. We considered the cost, in monetary terms (even though the cost would be covered without a general appeal) and in terms of the burden it could place emotionally on the congregation-seven years is a long time to be in litigation. We considered the large investment already expended and the comparatively small investment now before us with a potentially large return both financially and in terms of encouragement to other congregations throughout the entire nation. We prayed. We read the Word. We listened to views expressed by members of the congregation. We consulted each other. We evaluated as a body all our own three arguments for and against. We considered the offer of a concerned group of parishioners to fund the appeal. In the end, we reached the conclusion that the Lord had not released us yet from this obligation and that we were bound to follow it to the end."
Leaders believe that the legal basis for their request that the Supreme Court of the U.S. hear the case is based on whether the First Amendment and prior Supreme Court decisions involving church property support reliance on church canons that are not embodied in the deeds or other ordinary instruments of property ownership under civil law. The petition will explain the importance of these issues to resolution of similar disputes throughout the country and to the clarity of the law.
Leaders say that they will know by late this year or early 2014 whether the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case. They expect to have a decision by summer 2014.
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