New lawsuits filed by The Episcopal Church against the latest exodus of churches over church property did not surprise the breakaway Anglicans but one defendant called it "un-Christian."
Weeks after the Diocese of Virginia sued 11 churches that overwhelmingly voted to break from the Episcopal Church, the American denomination joined the battle in a complaint filed Friday over the control of property.
Tom Wilson, senior warden of The Falls Church, one of the largest and most historic churches to leave the Episcopal diocese in December, said the move by the denomination is "not surprising but sadly un-Christian and heavy-handed," in a released statement.
The 20-page complaint names the clergy and vestry in the case, arguing that they are continuing to use the real and personal property "for their own use in association with a different church," according to the Episcopal News Service.
Dissident Anglicans, now aligned with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America an outreach initiative of the Church of Nigeria 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. The properties are worth tens of millions of dollars.
In the complaint, the denomination cites Virginia canons that say a parish's property is "held by and for the mission of the Church." The canons also say that the diocese "shall" take steps to secure the property of any parish or mission that ceases to function as an Episcopal congregation.
"If the Episcopal Church were half as devoted to the Scriptures as it is to its so-called canons, perhaps it would not find itself in these dire straits, said Wilson.
Wilson along with the majority of the 11 congregations split over the denomination's departure from scriptural authority, particularly in the issue of homosexuality. The 2003 consecration of the U.S. Anglican body's first openly gay bishop and the new Episcopal head's support of homosexual ordination and the blessing of same-sex unions left conservative Anglicans at odds with the denomination. Opposing Anglicans saw the ordination as an act of apostasy and in violation of an agreed doctrine that described homosexuality as incompatible with Scripture.
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The Episcopal Church will go under scrutiny at the global Primates meeting on Wednesday where 38 archbishops are expected to meet at the same table.
At the time of the recent 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.
"This is just the latest evidence of division within the Episcopal Church, said Jim Oakes, senior warden of Truro Church. Its unfortunate that anyone who sides with an orthodox branch of the Anglican Communion finds itself being sued. But we have studied the law and are prepared to respond.
The complaint asks the court to issue preliminary and permanent injunctions ordering the defendants to relinquish control of the church property as the property is called to be used for "the Church's ministry and mission."