Nine conservative Anglican churches were dealt a blow Thursday when the Virginia Supreme Court overturned a lower court's ruling that favored the breakaway congregations.
The long battle over multimillion-dollar church properties continues to rage on three years after The Episcopal Church sued the group of nine churches after they left the denomination.
"We are disappointed with today's ruling and will review it as we consider our options," said Jim Oakes, chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, which is the umbrella organization for the nine Anglican congregations, in a statement. "This is not the final chapter in this matter."
The state high court ruled that a Civil War-era statute, which grants property to departing congregations when there is division within the denomination, was incorrectly applied in the dispute. The matter has been remanded back to the lower court for further proceedings.
"This decision brings us one important step closer to returning loyal Episcopalians, who have been extraordinarily faithful in disheartening and difficult circumstances, to their church homes," said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia, in a statement.
Breakaway congregations have worshipped in their church buildings since they voted to sever ties with The Episcopal Church – the U.S. arm of Anglicanism – in 2006 and 2007. They realigned with a missionary arm of the Church of Nigeria – a province of the Anglican Communion – while small minorities of members chose to remain in The Episcopal Church.
The Virginia parishes were among dozens of congregations throughout the country that left in the years following the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay bishop.
In December 2008, a Fairfax County judge said the departing congregations are allowed under Virginia law to leave and that they can keep their property. The Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia, however, appealed the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court.
Despite the high court's decision, Oakes continues to argue that the church properties are titled in the name of the congregations' trustees and not in the name of the diocese or The Episcopal Church.
"[W]e continue to be confident in our legal position as we move forward and will remain steadfast in our effort to defend the historic Christian faith," he stated.
The Episcopal Church has filed dozens of lawsuits against parishes that have left and continue to occupy church properties. Conservatives have denounced the denomination for draining money and distracting the churches from their mission through litigious actions.
Jeff Walton, Anglican program director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which monitors denominations, commented, "The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia have frittered away millions of dollars that could have been used for ministry and are now being thrown into the black hole of property litigation.
"While the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the diocese today, there are ultimately no winners in these church property disputes."
Earlier this week, U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori defended the body's legal proceedings, stating, "The reality is that sometimes the church does need to resort to civil courts to assert its rights," according to Anglican Essentials Canada.
The Episcopal Church consists of 111 geographical dioceses with over 7,000 congregations and over 2 million members.