(Photo: Briar Creek Photography/Georgi Barker)
A Virginia congregation that broke away from The Episcopal Church over theological differences has been notified that its appeal was granted by the State Supreme Court regarding issues surrounding funds and property.
The Falls Church Anglican, a large congregation in Fairfax County that left the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia years ago along with several other conservative churches in the Commonwealth, was granted its appeal on Friday.
Jeff Walton, Anglican program director at the Institute on Religion & Democracy, told The Christian Post that the Va. Supreme Court's decision was a "positive development."
"This is a positive development for the Anglican group, which seeks to retain financial assets in its accounts at the time of the separation," said Walton.
"By hearing the appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court is allowing that the original case transferring all parish property – physical and financial – to the diocese may not have been correctly decided."
Walton told CP that there were multiple components to the appeal, including "deeds to the old historic sanctuary of the Falls Church, which predates the founding of both the diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church."
"The central dispute, however, is around approximately $2 million that the Falls Church had in its bank account when the parish departed the diocese," said Walton.
"The vast majority of Falls Church members designated their funds in writing as not to go to either the diocese or the Episcopal Church, but the diocese was awarded the money in the district court ruling. That money is now held in escrow by the court, awaiting the outcome of the appeal."
In 2006 and 2007, 11 Virginia congregations voted to leave The Episcopal Church due to its increasingly liberal theological views, especially regarding homosexuality. In reaction to these decisions, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia took the departing congregations to court over the church properties. Four congregations were removed from the suit either because of technicalities or through out-of-court settlements with the diocese.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled in favor of the seven departing congregations in 2008. However, the Virginia State Supreme Court overturned Bellows' decision and sent the case back to Fairfax County. In January, Bellows ruled in favor of the Diocese against the conservative breakaways.
The Falls Church Anglican would hold its last services at the disputed property in May. The Falls Church Episcopal, the smaller "continuing congregation" that remained with TEC, presently uses the property. For worship the Anglican congregation uses the auditorium of Bishop O'Connell High School in Arlington and Columbia Baptist Chapel in Falls Church.
Henry D.W. Burt, Secretary and Chief of Staff at The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, provided The Christian Post with a statement regarding the granted appeal.
"Regardless of this development, this diocese looks toward the future with hope as we continue to serve this world in need," said Burt.
"We will continue to support the Falls Church Episcopal as they face this uncertainty with the same faithfulness they have faced so many others. We remain confident in our legal position and we look forward to the successful conclusion of this litigation."
At present, both the Anglican congregation and the Diocese await the written notification from the Virginia State Supreme Court regarding further details.