A trial involving 11 former Episcopal congregations began Tuesday in a bitter battle over tens of millions of dollars of church property. It is reported to be the largest property dispute in the history of The Episcopal Church.
Almost a year after the majority of congregants in 15 Virginia churches voted to leave the U.S.-based church body, the battle over the control of church property has gone to the Fairfax County Circuit Court, where a judge will hear evidence during a two-week trial. Only 11 breakaway congregations are involved in the litigation.
The churches severed ties from The Episcopal Church – the U.S. branch of Anglicanism – citing the denomination's departure from Scripture and Christian orthodoxy. After the split, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and soon thereafter The Episcopal Church, filed suits against the churches and individuals to reclaim the multi-million dollar church properties.
"The Episcopal Church has continually walked away from the scriptural foundation of the Anglican Communion," said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, an association of Anglican congregations in Virginia and a part of the conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). "When we objected, they chose intimidation through lawsuits as their solution."
Breakaway Anglicans have asked and continue to ask for the withdrawal of the lawsuits, which Oakes has called "unseemly."
"We did not choose this path," Oakes stated. "Even today, our churches remain open to negotiating a reasonable solution with The Episcopal Church and the Diocese. The legal proceedings have been an unfortunate distraction from all the good work our churches are doing to advance the mission of Christ."
Conservative Anglicans in Virginia are joined by traditionalists nationwide who are discontent with the liberal direction of The Episcopal Church. The U.S. Anglican arm widened rifts in 2003 when it consecrated its first openly gay bishop. Breakaway Anglicans only make up a minority in the wider church body, and members of the 15 Virginia congregations that left represent about 7 percent of the Diocese of Virginia, according to The Washington Post.
But the minority is supported by conservatives overseas who dominate in Africa and Asia.
This month's trial is the first of two trials and is meant to determine whether a "division" has occurred in The Episcopal Church. The breakaway congregants had filed court documents after their split citing a Virginia law from the Civil War era that allows congregations that have divided to vote on where they wish to affiliate. They argue that there is a division in the global Anglican Communion.
"The division has led more than half of the provinces of the Anglican Communion to announce a severance of relations with [The Episcopal Church] and has prompted a substantial number of congregations in the United States to disaffiliate from [The Episcopal Church] and their dioceses," the conservative Anglicans say in court filings.
Oakes says they have a strong case "legally and ethically."
Meanwhile, the Virginia diocese is arguing that there was no division. Rather, individuals discontent with the national church chose to leave. Also, the diocese and The Episcopal Church say that the denomination is hierarchical and "division" can only happen if there is a vote of its governing body. With no formal division recognized by the Episcopal hierarchy, Episcopal leaders argue that the state law does not apply in this case.
Conservatives, however, argue that it was the national church that "left" by letting stand the controversial 2003 consecration. The national church "has willfully torn the fabric of the communion at the deepest level," attorney Steffen N. Johnson said Tuesday in his opening argument, according to The Washington Post.
The trial is scheduled for six days and Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows has said he will rule on this case next month. A second trial will be held on the lawsuits filed by the diocese and The Episcopal Church. The suits ask the Circuit Court to declare the diocese the rightful owner of all the property.