(Photo: Matt Rhodes/The Falls Church Episcopal)
The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church against a congregation that voted to leave the denomination over its liberal theological views.
In a decision issued Thursday, the Court decided that The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia owned the property of the Falls Church, rather than the approximately 3,000-strong departing Falls Church Anglican congregation.
In the majority opinion written by Justice Cleo E. Powell, the Court stated that while the property belongs to The Episcopal Church and its Diocese, ownership of the funds tied to the property is still undecided.
George Ward, Senior Warden for Falls Church Anglican and spokesman for the congregation, told The Christian Post that the decision was "not the one we had hoped for, but we praise and thank God for his faithfulness to us."
"Our faith and our future do not depend on court decisions. It is difficult to face the prospect of losing things that are precious to us, but ultimately we do not place our hope in land, buildings, or money," said Ward.
"We have followed the course that we prayerfully believed was right. We are grateful that we live in a country in which recourse to the courts has been open to us. And it is a privilege to count this cost to be obedient to Christ."
Ward also told CP that the Falls Church Anglican's vestry would soon be meeting and would discuss whether or not to appeal the decision.
Established in the 18th century with George Washington serving at one point as a vestryman, the Falls Church was one of eleven Episcopal congregations in Virginia who voted to leave The Episcopal Church in 2006 and 2007 over the national denomination's increasing acceptance of homosexuality.
After their decision to leave was made, The Episcopal Church sued the congregations over their property, which they argued belonged to the denomination. Due to certain technicalities, four of the congregations were dropped from the suit.
While Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows initially ruled in favor of the departing churches in 2008, his decision was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court. In January 2012, Bellows would rule against the departing congregations, including the Falls Church Anglican.
Last October, the Virginia Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from the Falls Church over both its extensive property and the church funds, the latter of which Falls Church Anglican argued belonged to them as they had not been designated to go to either the Diocese or TEC.
Jeff Walton, Anglican program director at the Institute on Religion & Democracy, told The Christian Post that there were similar legal issues with departing Episcopal congregations across the nation.
"Of the seven congregations that had litigation brought against them by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, six entered into settlement agreements last year. The Falls Church (Anglican) is the sole parish currently in litigation with the diocese," said Walton.
"Nationwide, numerous parishes continue to be embroiled in lawsuits with the Episcopal Church, with litigation just beginning in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. Unfortunately, lawsuits seem to be a defining part of this era in the Episcopal Church's collective life."
As the Falls Church Anglican worships at various spaces including a local high school, the smaller continuing congregation of the Falls Church Episcopal uses the disputed property.
The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of the Virginia Diocese, said in a statement that he was grateful for the decision as it guaranteed that the loyal Episcopalians at Falls Church would be able to have a space to worship at.
"We are grateful that the Supreme Court of Virginia has once again affirmed the right of Episcopalians to worship in their spiritual home at The Falls Church Episcopal," said Johnston.
"This decision ensures that Episcopalians will have a home for years to come in Falls Church, and frees all of us, on both sides of this issue, to preach the Gospel and teach the faith unencumbered by this dispute."