Members of breakaway Anglican churches in Virginia are grieving for The Episcopal Church after its recent motion to add additional defendants to a church property lawsuit.
The 11 Virginia churches, its clergy, trustees and lay leaders (vestry members) that are being sued filed a memo opposing the denomination's motion to add 76 more unpaid church volunteers to the lawsuit and anyone else in the future.
"It's hard to understand The Episcopal Church's and the diocese's motivation for attacking these volunteers and our churches," said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, an association of conservative Anglican congregations in Virginia. "The motivation appears to be intimidation, but we remain open to negotiating a reasonable solution."
The Virginia churches, including two of the largest and most historic in the Diocese of Virginia, broke ties with The Episcopal Church after overwhelming votes in December. The Diocese, and soon thereafter The Episcopal Church, filed suits against the churches and individuals to reclaim the multi-million dollar church properties.
"The Episcopal Church and the diocese have already sued almost 100 unpaid church volunteers who are immune from being sued, and now they want to add more," said Oakes.
Oakes explained that Virginia law is clear that volunteer or vestry members who are unpaid are immune from civil liability from actions taken as their official duties as board members.
And it's hard to find any logical reason as to why The Episcopal Church is adding more defendants when they have nothing to gain by doing so, he added.
"The only [reason] we can see is to intimidate vestry members and members of other churches [that are] thinking of splitting their ties," Oakes commented. "It's entirely plausible to me that The Episcopal Church is interested in almost a scorched-earth tactic (a military tactic which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy in the course of advancing or retreating troops)."
A court hearing was held Friday. The Episcopal Church and Virginia Diocese and the defendants were admonished to try to find a way to resolve the issues in a way mutually satisfactory, according to Oakes.
The motion to add defendants comes weeks after the Episcopal Executive Council said they cannot respond to the requests of Anglican leaders who called The Episcopal Church to unequivocally pledge not to consecrate another openly gay bishop or authorize official prayers for same-sex couples. Only the General Convention has the authority to respond, the panel said. A deadline for the response was set for Sept. 30. The Episcopal panel also said that the Anglican leaders cannot make decisions for The Episcopal Church - U.S. branch of Anglicanism.
"I think it's becoming more and more apparent that The Episcopal Church is just redefining itself as a radical offshoot of what most of us would understand as mainstream Christianity," Oakes noted. "They don't seem to be interested in connecting with the larger Anglican Communion or the larger Christian community.
"We're very saddened by that and continue to grieve for their continued insistence in going into such strange places."
Earlier this week, a California Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in a church property lawsuit against three breakaway churches. The June 25 decision overturned rulings by a lower court which had ruled in favor of the parishes.
Oakes said the circumstances in the Los Angeles lawsuit are very different from that of the 11 Virginia churches and still believes they have a very strong case.