Episcopal Property Dispute at Standstill

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia authorized an agreement Monday with those who voted to split with the Episcopal Church to hold off on the transfer of church property ownership.

Departing members of the national church body agreed not to attempt to transfer church property for 30 days, the diocese stated, and both sides promised not to initiate any litigation concerning the departures during that time period.

The diocese's news release on the agreement, however, came as a "surprise" to Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church – two of the largest and most historic congregations in Virginia that separated from the Episcopal Church, according to Jim Pierobon, spokesperson for the two churches. He said Tuesday morning that no further comments could be made at the time.

After a weeklong vote, at least seven Episcopal parishes voted overwhelmingly to break from the national church body. The U.S. arm of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion has experienced widening rifts since the consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003. Further opposition from conservative parishes came with the installment of Katharine Jefferts Schori, a supporter of same-sex unions and the consecration of homosexuals, this year as head of the Episcopal Church.

Some of the breakaway parishes plan to place themselves under the leadership of Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, who staunchly opposes the growing acceptance of gay relationships.

Bishop Robert Duncan, head of the Anglican Communion Network - a growing network of parishes apart from the Episcopal Church, commended the Virginia churches re-affiliating with another branch of the Anglican Communion.

"There is no question that the clergy and people of The Falls Church, Truro Church, Church of the Apostles, Christ the Redeemer, St. Stephen’s, Church of the Word, St. Margaret’s and Potomac Falls remain fully and faithfully Anglican," said Duncan in a statement.

Regarding possible litigation coming out of the split, Duncan commented, "It is now up to the leadership of the Diocese of Virginia to choose between embracing a charitable parting of ways or pursuing destructive litigation. I pray they can see their way to selecting the first course."

In addition to the 30-day agreement, the Executive Board, Standing Committee and Bishop Peter Lee of the Diocese of Virginia established a Property Commission charged with addressing matters of real and personal property on behalf of the Diocese. The committee is set up to meet with departing members to discuss property matters on a case-by-case basis.

According to Fairfax County records, Buildings and land at Truro and The Falls Church alone are valued at about $25 million, the Washington Post reported. The two congregations had also voted for a resolution saying that they should keep the property.

In the midst of the standstill, Jefferts Schori released a statement saying the Episcopal Church is not splintering.

"This is a handful of congregations of a total of nearly 7,200, the vast majority of which are engaged in healthy and vital ministry," she said Monday, alluding to the Virginia parishes that left. According to parish leaders, four other Virginia parishes previously left and two more will decide on a split.