Eight Virginia churches stand rather like Sir Thomas More once stood against an irrational and tyrannical edict from King Henry VIII. Henry demanded an oath that Englishmen accept Anne Boleyn as their legitimate queen and himself as head of the Church of England, an oath that ran counter to the Church’s definition of marriage, its existent structure, and to More’s conscience. More paid for his principled stand with his life on July 6, 1535, and England’s ties to the Catholic Church ended up dissolved. The church that Henry created in order to make his marriage “legal” now finds itself embroiled in a similar doctrinal civil war that, if the worst happens, could turn historic Virginia churches into mosques. One of those churches played a role in America’s own fight for freedom.
The town of Falls Church, VA, gets its name from the beautiful historic church at its heart. The Falls Church was built in the time of George Washington, who was himself a vestryman at the church, and the original chapel still stands amid a far larger and more modern campus, and today boasts about 2,500 members. According to a historical marker nearby, the Falls Church was a recruiting station for the fledgling army that Washington led. But today the Falls Church is the target of a scorched earth campaign that the Episcopal Church USA, now called The Episcopal Church (TEC) is waging against several of its own congregations.
The Falls Church’s differences with TEC began over doctrinal issues in the 1970s, but came to a head in 2003 with the Episcopal Church’s ordination of the first non-celibate gay bishop. Many Episcopal churches, including the Falls Church and seven others in northern Virginia, elected to separate from TEC and created a parallel church network aligned with the Anglican Communion. But TEC claimed ownership of the Falls Church’s sprawling campus, and a lawsuit soon followed to wrest the property away from the congregation. Claiming alienation of property, the Episcopal Church went to courtroom war against its breakaway flocks.
The TEC’s lawsuit against the eight churches hinges on property ownership: Who owns the buildings and lands where the congregations meet? What would seem to be a straightforward issue, isn’t, thanks in part to how Episcopal churches are governed. Episcopal churches exist somewhere between Catholic parishes, the properties of which rest solely in the hands of bishops, and most Protestant churches, which own their own properties independent of their denomination or larger structural organization. Unlike Catholic churches, Episcopal churches exercise some independence from the larger church and have the power to vote on whether to sever ties with TEC. These churches did just that. But unlike other Protestant churches, Episcopal churches exercise somewhat less independence from their larger church. But the deeds to the properties in question are in the names of the local trustees, not the TEC itself.
These churches also predate the founding of the Episcopal diocese in Virginia itself. In fact, they are among its founding churches. Falls Church itself dates back to 1734. The diocese that is suing it is three decades its junior.
Nevertheless, the Episcopal Church has continued to wage a very expensive war in court. Jim Oakes, chairman of the Anglican Division of Virginia, estimates that the case has cost the local churches and TEC between $5 million and $8 million on both sides, or between $10 million to $16 million total. For churches that exist to provide ministry to families and towns, those millions could have surely been put to much better use than hiring lawyers and engaging in legal proceedings that have now lasted five years.
As the years have worn on, the churches have offered to settle out of court at each stage, only to be rejected by the Episcopal Church, and then have prevailed over TEC in court. That changed when the case made it all the way to the Virginia Supreme Court, which handed the case back down to the circuit level after finding that the law at the heart of the case – called the division statute – did not apply in this case.