Virginia court rules against diocese in church property cases

By on May 1, 2008

A judge in Virginia ruled April 3 that it was appropriate for 11 Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) congregations to file property claims under a portion of Virginia state law that is triggered when there is a so-called “division” of a church or religious society.

Fairfax County Judge Randy I. Bellows did not rule on the property issues themselves or whether the Virginia statute violates the Episcopal Church’s or the diocese’s rights under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion. He said only that the CANA congregations, some of which include former members of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, could file their claims under the so-called “Division Statute” of the Code of Virginia.

“We are obviously disappointed in yesterday’s ruling by the trial judge against the Episcopal Church and the diocese that involved one Virginia statutory issue in the case,” the office of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in a statement. “While we believe that the court’s conclusion that Virginia’s unusual ‘division’ statute applies to the current situation in the diocese, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is incorrect, there will be time enough in the future to seek review of that decision if it becomes necessary.”

In other news, the U.S. house of bishops, meeting at Navasota, Tex. from March 7-12, voted to depose, or remove from office, Bishop John-David Schofield of the central California diocese of San Joaquin, after the diocese voted last December to leave the Episcopal Church and align with the South American Province of the Southern Cone.

On March 29, Episcopalians remaining loyal to the church held a convention in Lodi, Calif., that accepted Bishop Jerry A. Lamb as provisional bishop until an episcopal election can be held. Bishop Jefferts Schori appointed Bishop Lamb, who has served the diocese of Northern California and was most recently interim bishop of Nevada.

The national church’s executive council voted to contribute $500,000 to the reconstruction of the diocese, including the establishment of diocesan offices in Stockton, Calif. The diocese was formerly based in Fresno.

“This extended family we call the Episcopal Church wants to continue to support the local initiatives of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin both through our prayers and other tangible forms of assistance,” said Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to the Presiding Bishop.

About 17 congregations participated in the convention. Another estimated 20 congregations had members present.

Meanwhile, an announcement posted on the Web site belonging to Bishop Schofield’s diocese told clergy and laity to stay away from the March 29 convention.

The newsletter also told congregations that they should file their annual parochial reports with Bishop Schofield’s office “and certainly not to the Episcopal Church.”

The house of bishops also voted to depose retired bishop William Cox, suffragan of the diocese of Maryland, who also joined the Southern Cone and ordained two priests and a deacon in 2005 at a Kansas church that then left the Episcopal Church.

The bishops also learned that Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, a gay man whose election in 2003 was a major factor in the church’s division, will not receive a full invitation to July’s Lambeth Conference in England, a once-per-decade gathering of all Anglican bishops.

A committee of three bishops, which had been negotiating Bishop Robinson’s possible participation, reported that he had been offered a place in the “marketplace” exhibit section. However, they said, the Archbishop of Canterbury was not willing to allow Bishop Robinson to be present at worship, discussion or plenary sessions, or sessions having to do with sexuality issues.

Bishop Robinson said that he plans to be in Canterbury during the July 16-Aug. 3 gathering, but not as an official conference participant or observer.

With files from Episcopal News Service

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