The Supreme Court of Virginia has agreed to hear the appeal of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia nearly a year after breakaway Anglicans came away with a court win in church property disputes.
In an announcement Wednesday, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia said the state high court will review every issue raised for appeal by the diocese and the national church without oral argument.
"We welcome this next step to bringing exiled Episcopalians closer to returning to their church homes," said Henry Burt, secretary of the diocese, in a statement.
Eleven congregations in Virginia voted in December of 2006 and January the following year to sever ties with The Episcopal Church – the U.S. arm of Anglicanism – while staying in alignment with the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The breakaway Anglicans believe the U.S. church has abandoned Scripture and traditional Anglicanism.
Although they along with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia tried to avoid litigation, the diocese and the national church were not convinced that they could move forward in the dispute without resorting to civil courts and decided to file lawsuits to secure the property of the parishes that voted to leave.
The breakaway parishes based their arguments on a Civil War-era statute which grants property to departing congregations when there is division within the denomination.
The Virginia diocese contended that there was no division. Rather, individuals discontent with the national church chose to leave. Also, under a hierarchical structure "division" can only happen if there is a vote of its governing body. The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, whose resignation as bishop of Virginia became effective this month, argued that The Episcopal Church is hierarchical and has the freedom to govern itself.
Judge Randy I. Bellows of Fairfax County Circuit Court, however, determined that there was a division in the national church as well as the in global Anglican Communion and ruled last December that departing congregations could leave and keep their property.
But the diocese said despite the ruling, "serious constitutional issues" remained, including the constitutional protections for hierarchical churches.
Conservative Anglicans were not surprised to hear this week's announcement by the high court. Jim Oakes, vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, of which the breakaway churches are members, told VirtueOnline that they are still confident in their legal position and hope to put the litigation behind them.