(Photo: Matt Rhodes/The Falls Church Episcopal)
A continuing congregation of The Episcopal Church held its first Easter service in a Virginia church since the majority of the members voted to break away from the denomination.
The Falls Church, a piece of ecclesiastical property that traces its origins back to the 18th century, was one of seven church properties that The Episcopal Church won in a court battle back in January.
Henry Burt, secretary of the Diocese of Virginia who grew up as a member of The Falls Church, told The Christian Post that the Episcopal service at The Falls Church last Sunday was well attended.
"There were people there who were members of the continuing congregation who basically had never worshipped in that building. There were lots of people there who had been members of The Falls Church decades ago," said Burt.
"It was a real reunion of a lot of folks."
Meanwhile, the group of Anglicans who severed ties with The Episcopal Church held its service on the same property but in a different building. The breakaway group has been worshipping at the property since it left the denomination.
Burt said that while there was not much direct communication between the breakaway Anglican and the continuing Episcopal congregations, what interactions did take place was cordial in nature.
"One of the nice things about the day was that both congregations were there and they were very … positive," said Burt.
"There is still a lot of connections between the two congregations."
The current property of The Falls Church includes two sanctuaries, a smaller historic building and a larger modern sanctuary.
Jeff Walton, Anglican Staffer for the Institute of Religion and Democracy as well as a member of an Anglican church that was a "daughter congregation" to The Falls Church, told The Christian Post that the numbers on Easter Sunday were "not a good evaluation of congregational health."
"Easter is the high point of church attendance for most congregations, and the Episcopal congregation has received a strong showing of support from Falls Church city officials and many other well-wishers in the Episcopal diocese," said Walton.
"I believe the Episcopal congregation claims about 370 persons attended their Easter service. In contrast, the Anglican congregation had over 4,700 people attending on the same Easter Sunday."
The Falls Church was one of seven church properties whose congregations voted to break away from The Episcopal Church due to the denomination's growing acceptance of homosexuality and other theological issues. The congregation decided to join the more theologically conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America.
Initially, 11 congregations were taken to court over the church properties, but four were removed due to either technicalities or through reaching an out-of-court settlement with the Diocese of Virginia.
Judge Randy Bellows of Fairfax County ruled in favor of the conservative congregations in 2008 but his ruling was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court and the case was sent back to Bellows. In January, Bellows ruled in favor of Episcopal diocese.
For The Falls Church, some consideration has been made by both sides of having the breakaway Anglican congregation rent one of the property's two sanctuaries. Walton of the IRD told CP that a "rental deal would make sense for both congregations."
"The continuing Episcopal congregation has made clear that they are interested in holding services in the smaller historic church, leaving the larger, 800-seat main sanctuary available," said Walton.
"Assumedly, the larger sanctuary will be rented to someone as a source of revenue for the smaller Episcopal congregation."
Burt of the diocese told CP that any agreement regarding rental space would have to go through the Bishop of the Diocese of Virginia.