Lawsuits against 11 breakaway Anglican churches went under review before a Fairfax County judge Monday to begin resolving church property conflicts. And the defendants - conservative Anglicans - are fairly optimistic.
"We believe we have a strong case morally, legally and ethically," commented Jim Oakes, vice chair of the Anglican District of Virginia and one of 107 defendants named in the lawsuits, about the property dispute.
The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia are suing the churches, including two of the largest and most historic; their clergy; and lay leaders after the parishes overwhelmingly voted to leave the American church body yet have continued to worship on the multimillion-dollar church properties.
Attorneys for all three parties were present at the Monday scheduling conference for what may be the Episcopal Church's largest lawsuit ever. Circuit Judge Randy Bellows agreed to first hear arguments on the "division statute" to determine whether the breakaway Anglicans' claim that there is division in the Episcopal Church and in the worldwide Anglican Communion is valid.
The tentative trial date to hear filings under the Virginia statute is late November, according to Oakes.
"We claim that … the fact that we (Truro Church) took the vote in concert with other churches and the fact that there is so clearly a division – not only within the diocese [of Virginia] also but within the Episcopal Church, as evidenced by entire dioceses that are talking about looking for alternative oversight, and within the worldwide Anglican Communion, as evidenced by a number of provinces in the Anglican Communion – have in effect declared that they are either in impaired communion or not in communion with the American Episcopal Church," explained Oakes, also former senior warden of Truro Church. "We believe that all those factors point to the existence of a division."
The Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church, which filed suit weeks after the diocese did, however, disagree that there is division.
The Virginia churches had voted to split from the national denomination in December, leaving only tiny minorities of members who chose to remain in the Episcopal Church and joining the Convocation of Anglicans in North America – an orthodox Anglican splinter group set up by the Church of Nigeria in the United States. Leaders of the breakaway bunch argued that the Episcopal Church has departed from Christian orthodoxy, and the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop heightened the controversy.
While the conservative Anglicans have continued to hold worship services on the church properties, the Episcopal Church and its Virginia diocese argue that they shall take steps to secure the property of any parish or mission that ceases to function as an Episcopal congregation. Meanwhile, the breakaway Anglicans claim that the deeds to the church properties are in the name of trustees for the congregations and not the Diocese of Virginia or the Episcopal Church
"[W]e are appalled that we are having to deal with this issue in the courts," said Oakes. "We continue to think it's unseemly for Christians to have to battle these sorts of issues out in secular court."
When the Episcopal Church had announced its filed suit in February, leaders of the breakaway churches had called it "un-Christian."
At the time of the December split, the Virginia diocese and the breakaway congregations had originally agreed to avoid litigation over property. But negotiations stopped within a month of the agreement and the Episcopal Church has since backed the diocese in the recovery of the church properties.
Amid scheduling trial dates and preparing for evidentiary hearings, Oakes and fellow orthodox Anglicans continue to "strongly" ask the Episcopal Church to return to the negotiating table.
"My personal hope would be that the judge would at some point order us to try to work differences out through negotiation," said Oakes. "Litigation is just expensive, it's unseemly. Nobody really wins. All that said, we're confident of our position."