Va. Episcopal Property Battle Still Far from Over

The Episcopal Church agreed to dismiss all unpaid church volunteers and rectors as defendants in one of the largest lawsuits ever in the denomination.

In the ongoing church property dispute between 11 breakaway churches and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, along with The Episcopal Church, a preliminary hearing was held last Friday. Before Virginia's Fairfax Circuit Court made a ruling, the diocese and national body worked out an agreement that would dismiss some defendants who would in turn agree to honor any determination of the court regarding the plaintiff's property claims.

The agreement comes over a month after The Episcopal Church, which was already suing almost 100 unpaid church volunteers, filed a motion to add 76 additional defendants to the church property lawsuit.

"We are appreciative that after all these months, our volunteer vestry members and our pastoral leadership are no longer named defendants in lawsuit filed by the Diocese and The Episcopal Church," said Tom Wilson, senior warden of The Falls Church, and chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia Board of Directors, according to the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) – an association of conservative Anglican congregations in Virginia.

Regarding the battle over the ownership of the multimillion-dollar church properties, the court rejected the request of the 11 breakaway congregations to dismiss the complaints of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia. The court denied the claims of the breakaway congregations that the court should not consider the denomination's Constitution and Canons (church laws) in deciding property disputes.

Before those claims proceed to trial, a hearing has been scheduled by the court for later this year whether or not the claims filed by the Virginia churches under the Virginia Division Statute preempt the property claims of The Episcopal Church and the diocese, ADV vice chairman Jim Oakes said in a letter Friday.

The churches, which broke from The Episcopal Church in overwhelming votes last December, have argued that Virginia law does not recognize denominational trusts in their property and thus the diocese cannot base claim to church property on an assertion of trust-based rights. Based on that claim, since the diocese does not own the church properties, its claims of conversion, trespass, alienation or accounting "must fail," the ADV stated earlier.

Also, the court dismissed claims of the Virginia Diocese that the conservative congregation committed a trespass by holding onto property.

Patrick Getlein, secretary of the Diocese of Virginia, wrote in a letter to diocesan clergy and lay leaders, "The situation we find ourselves in is regrettable and unfortunate. Nevertheless, we must protect and preserve our heritage for future generations."

The Virginia property dispute is still far from over, Oakes indicated in his letter.

In related news, Virginia bishop Peter James Lee earlier this month defrocked 21 clergy who had already left The Episcopal Church. Breakaway Anglicans argued, however, that the decision is "meaningless" and that the clergy are in good standing in the conservative offshoot CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America) – the mission initiative of the Church of Nigeria.