Breakaway congregations given deadline for property return

Seven U.S. breakaway congregations have been ordered by a judge to return control of church property to the Diocese of Virginia. Photo: Kuzma
Seven U.S. breakaway congregations have been ordered by a judge to return control of church property to the Diocese of Virginia. Photo: Kuzma
Published March 6, 2012

Seven breakaway congregations have been ordered by a judge to return control of church property to the Diocese of Virginia by April 30.

Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows set that date after he refused March 1 to reconsider, as requested by the congregations, the part of his Jan. 10 opinion in which he said that some personal property, including monetary gifts, given to the congregations prior to January 31, 2007, belongs to the diocese.

Bellows’ actions were meant to implement his Jan. 10 opinion that the diocese and the Episcopal Church “have a contractual and proprietary interest in the property of these Episcopal churches” for use in the church’s mission and ministry. He added that while congregations “had an absolute right to depart from [the Episcopal Church] and the diocese, they had no right to take these seven Episcopal churches with them.”

The real property includes seven church buildings and a significant number of other parcels. The personal property includes both tangible items, such as chalices, prayer books and crosses, and intangibles, including the funds on hand, the diocese said in a press release  issued close to midnight on March 1.

Bellows ordered that the specific inventory of items be based on what he called the “ownership determination date,” which he set at either Jan. 31, 2007, or Feb. 1, 2007, the dates the diocese formally filed for legal action to recover its property.

Bellows issued his order the day after he held a hearing on the issues. The text of the order is here.

The ruling allows the CANA congregations to retain some restricted funds over which they have no discretion and that do not benefit the local congregation, the diocese or the Episcopal Church, according to the release. The parties have until March 30 to determine the disposition of that money. Where the parties do not agree, the court will decide.

The majority of members and clergy of the seven parishes left to form congregations of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), which the Anglican Province of Nigeria began in 2005. The departing members of those congregations then filed claims to parish property under Virginia law.

“We hope that this will mark the end of this lengthy litigation,” Virginia Bishop Shannon S. Johnston said in the diocesan release. “By closing this chapter, both the diocese and the CANA congregations have the freedom to focus our energies on the mission and ministries of our respective congregations, and even what we might be able to do together for people and a world in need of the gospel’s work.”

Johnston added that the diocese has begun an initiative known as Dayspring, which he said was “an integrated effort to discern and implement a comprehensive vision for our congregations and properties affected by this litigation.”

Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the diocese, called the court’s order “a major milestone in this effort,” and added that the diocese “respect[s] fully the CANA congregations’ right to pursue an appeal, and we are in discussions with them as they face significant issues of discernment and transition in their path forward.”

Jim Oakes, spokesperson for the seven congregations, said in a press release that “while our congregations will comply with the final order, we are saddened that the Circuit Court did not accept the motion for partial reconsideration and we continue to believe that, as a matter of religious liberty, it is the right of donors to restrict the use of their own gifts to the church of their choice.”

The congregations are “prayerfully considering their legal options,” the release said.

“We have always known that a church is not just its buildings, but its people and the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ being proclaimed and lived. We look forward to God leading us in the days ahead,” the Rev. John Yates, rector of the breakaway portion of the Falls Church, said in the same release.

Yates had told his congregation on Feb. 22 that “our intention is to move all staff offices to a convenient nearby office building later this spring, and to shift our Sunday worship services to nearby locations” after the deadline set by Bellows. Some of those worship locations have been determined, others have not, he said.

Yates also said that the congregation “may very well be led” to change its name from Falls Church Anglican. It has already moved its website to from The Episcopal congregation is located here on the web.

Bellow’s Jan. 10 opinion stemmed from a June 2010 decision of the Virginia Supreme Court that found he erred in an earlier ruling when he said that the breakaway congregations involved in the cases were entitled to retain all the parishes’ real and personal property when they left the Episcopal Church and joined another denomination.

In June 2010, the Supreme Court held that although disagreements had caused “a division” within the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia, the breakaway congregations had affiliated with a church that was not a branch of either the Episcopal Church or the diocese. Such an affiliation is required, the court said, for Virginia’s one-of-a-kind “Division Statute” (Section 57-9(A)) to apply, as the breakaway congregations claimed.

The Supreme Court returned the cases to the lower court for further proceedings to resolve the property claims of the Episcopal Church and the diocese “under principles of real property and contract law.” Bellows held a trial that lasted 22 days stretched over April, May and June 2011, and included testimony by 60 witnesses. He wrote that he also reviewed thousands of pages of post-trial briefs.

In coming to his Jan. 10 opinion, Bellows reviewed Virginia statutes governing church property, the deeds to the real property of the churches, the governing rules of the diocese and the Episcopal Church, and the historic relationship between the parishes and the larger church.

He concluded state statutes support a finding that a local congregation is obligated to comply with the “laws, rules and ecclesiastical polity” of the denomination with regard to property and that the constitution and canons of both the diocese and the Episcopal Church “demonstrate pervasive dominion, management, and control over local church property, in a manner normally associated with ownership, title, and possession.” Bellows said the deeds in question make clear that the property “cannot be removed from the denomination without the larger church’s consent.”

More information about the cases, including all court filings, is available here.

The case originally involved members of 11 congregations of the Virginia diocese but the diocese settled with four of the congregations in the intervening years, including Potomac Falls Church in Potomac Falls and Christ the Redeemer Church in Chantilly, neither of which held any real property.

The diocese agreed to lease the property of Church of the Word in Prince William County to the breakaway members for five years. The Oatlands congregation announced the purchase of a tract of land where they are building a new church. Church of Our Saviour in Loudon County retained the property after paying the diocese $1.95 million, according to Burt. Both congregations agreed to disaffiliate from CANA for a period of time.

The remaining churches are Truro Church, The Church at the Falls ? The Falls Church (Arlington), Church of the Apostles (Fairfax), Church of the Epiphany (Fairfax), St. Margaret’s Church (Woodbridge), St. Paul’s Church (Haymarket) and St. Stephen’s Church (Northumberland County).

? The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.


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