Anglican churches that voted to sever ties with the Episcopal Church called lawsuits filed against them over property issues "an act of betrayal."
The Diocese of Virginia took the church property issue to court on Wednesday, suing 11 congregations and ordering a restraint against the further occupancy of the dissident Anglicans on the property. Anglican leaders who broke away only learned of the civil lawsuits Wednesday night from the media, according to a released statement.
"We receive this news as an act of betrayal," said a statement by the Board of the Anglican District of Virginia, consisting of leaders from the departed churches, now affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).
While the diocese reportedly stated that the Virginia congregations that overwhelmingly voted to split from the Episcopal Church in December took the first step into court, the CANA leaders argued that they did not file lawsuits.
"Our only action has been to record our parish votes in December and January for the public record," said the board.
Following the December vote, the breakaway congregations filed reports in the circuit courts of their respective counties, "complying" with Virginia law, as the churches had stated then. The law states that if a division occurs in a church, congregants may determine by vote which branch to belong to and report it to the circuit court of the county. And if approved by the court, it "shall be conclusive as to the title to and control of any property held in trust for such congregation."
The Diocese of Virginia was said to have been informed of the congregations' actions before the reports were filed.
The CANA leaders further stated that their volunteer lay leaders "diligently followed the steps outlined in the Diocese of Virginia's 'Protocol for Departing Congregations' trusting that the diocese would honor its own protocol."
However, "the actions taken [Wednesday] show that we were betrayed by that trust," said the statement.
Two weeks earlier, Virginia Bishop Peter Lee said the diocese had made numerous attempts to accommodate the views of the dissident Anglican leaders. But it became clear to them that the dissident congregations would hold no other position than the diocese relinquishing its claim to the church properties. Lee thus announced that the diocese would cut off negotiations and take steps to recover church property.
Despite the disagreements, the board of Anglican leaders stated, "We still believe that there are better ways to settle our differences than by the unprecedented actions the Diocese of Virginia took [Wednesday] against lay volunteers and their clergy. We request that the Diocese of Virginia step back from this precipitous behavior and resolve to find an amicable and reasonable way forward that will honor Christ and be a blessing to His Church."
The conservative Anglicans had made a similar call before the lawsuits were filed, asking the diocese to return to the negotiating table to reach an amicable agreement.
The clergy in charge and lay leadership of the 11 congregations being sued were named as defendants in the actions, the Episcopal News Service reported. The diocese did not ask the courts to impose any personal liability on any of the named individuals at this time.
Leaders on the Board of the Anglican District of Virginia who issued the statement are: Tom Wilson, senior warden of The Falls Church; Jim Oakes, senior warden of Truro Church; and David Allison, senior warden of Church of the Apostles.