VirtueOnline - News - Exclusives - VIRGINIA:TEC Bishop Lauds Legal Win but Faces Financial Uncertainty in Takeovers:
By David W. Virtue
February 6, 2012
Seven Episcopal congregations in Virginia, including two prominent, historic congregations that trace their roots to George Washington: Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church, now face the fact that after a 6-year legal battle they must walk away from tens of millions of dollars worth of real estate - a loss that just might turn out to not be quite the victory roll for the liberal Episcopal diocese.
Jim Oakes, a spokesman for the seven churches, said the theological problems are very deep. "We didn't separate over a dispute about the color of the draperies," he said. "These are very serious issues." Indeed they are. Communion breaking.
Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows reversed a ruling he made in 2008 giving custody to the conservative congregations. The Virginia Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 2010 and ordered a new trial. At issue for orthodox Anglicans in that diocese was the denomination's dangerous and unbiblical drift into pansexuality, a drift that is now a rift that has torn the very fabric of the Anglican Communion.
The judge still has to construct a final order to put Tuesday's ruling into effect, which will be complicated: It involves 42 separate deeds, as well as sorting out various personal property within the church. The one minor victory Bellows gave to the conservative congregations was that they could keep any donations and personal property associated with the churches they acquired since the split.
According to their budget, the diocese spent $2 million dollars last year in legal fees on this continuing battle with more fees due for this budget year. In his diocesan address, Bishop Johnson promised the departing congregations would be dealt with "graciousness" and no animosity. He then announced a "Dayspring Initiative" with three approaches: Vision - for the remaining congregations and their properties; Resources - meaning what can be used to implement the new visions; and Messaging - i.e. communicating the stories of how this Diocese is handling the new properties and visions. Of course, it remains to be seen how the Presiding Bishop will allow him to deal "graciously" with those who have left. Her track record to date has been abysmal. One should take nothing at face value from a sitting bishop or presiding bishop. She is on record as saying she would sooner sell parishes to be "saloons" than allow them to be sold to another Anglican jurisdiction.
"The future is absolutely bristling with possibilities. This is a truly historic time in the life of our diocese. It is not overstating the case to say that this is one of the most defining moments in all of our 400 year history," opined Bishop Shannon Johnston. However it is hard to see just what those "bristling" moments are. "Defining", perhaps; certainly in its 400 years, the diocese has never lost so many parishes and thousands of its adherents over such a short span of time. One wonders if the bishop was smoking something when he uttered those words or perhaps had seen a vision of Gene Robinson's ungodly consecration float before his eyes. His diocese voted overwhelmingly to "provide a generous pastoral response" by moving forward with guidelines to publicly bless same gender unions. Virginia Theological Seminary has been an incubator of pansexual staff and faculty adding fuel to an already glowing blaze. Ironically, no such "generous pastoral response" with regard to property was given to those with orthodox views and those who disagree with the "bristling" bishop on gay sex.
Then came a new twist in the settlement. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which said it was holding out an olive branch to the departed CANA parishes, had their attorneys file a motion with Judge Randy Bellows for an award of prejudgment interest, a decidedly sneaky move, but one you might expect from a liberal bishop more concerned with property than "with the faith once for all delivered to the saints."
"Pre-judgment interest" means just what the name says -- it is interest on an amount made payable for a time period before any actual judgment is entered. (After a judgment is entered against a defendant for a sum of money, post-judgment interest begins to accrue on the amount of the judgment, and continues to accrue until the judgment is paid in full.)
When VOL confronted officials at the Diocese of Virginia, they responded, "The motion for pre-judgment interest was filed on January 23, two weeks ago. Assuming the 'olive branch' reference is referring to the Bishop's pastoral address that occurred five days later. The motion was filed in light of the fiduciary duty of the Diocese of Virginia to recover all Episcopal Church assets and return them to the ministry of the Episcopal Church in Diocese of Virginia. We remain open to creative solutions and are in discussions in a variety of circumstances," wrote Henry D.W. Burt, Secretary and Chief of Staff for the Episcopal Diocese.
But as Canon Law Attorney A.S. Haley told VOL, "The Diocese was applying maximum pressure on the CANA congregations by going after prejudgment interest while telling them 'we can settle this.'"
A PYRRHIC VICTORY?
The Episcopal Diocese may have won the legal battle, but they have lost the hearts and minds of thousands of parishioners who will never again darken the doors of their hard fought for parishes. The brokering in of sexual sin has come at a huge price, which can never be reversed unless diocesan officials formally repent of their "progressive" sexual and unbiblical views. Furthermore, there is the real possibility that they cannot, over time, sustain the victory in any meaningful way.
A report by the Institute on Religion and Democracy said that the legal victory may prove "pyrrhic." Most of the "continuing congregations" that stand to take possession of the disputed properties - bodies that split off from the seven congregations when they voted to separate from the denomination - simply cannot afford them. "The state of these continuing congregations - often by their own admission - can be described as at best poorly prepared to maintain and operate large church properties, or at worst, teetering on the edge of being non-viable," noted the IRD report.
The Falls Church, for example, has average weekly attendance of around 2,000 and a $6 million annual budget. The continuing congregation of that church has a reported average attendance of 74. Similarly, the continuing congregation of the Church of the Epiphany in Herndon reported 2010 income, including pledges, of $50,000 and average attendance of 20, according to the Institute for Religion and Democracy. The congregation that now maintains the facilities has average attendance of 380 and a budget of $800,000.
The diocese, itself financially stretched, may be in no position to offer the continuing congregations much aid. "According to self-reported statistics, the diocese has lost 26 percent of its attendance in the past decade and has ceased planting new churches, despite significant population growth in Virginia. With the rapid increase of the median age of Episcopalians, there may not be 'a future generation of Episcopalians' to worship in these properties," continues the Institute report. Anglican officials have suggested they may end up selling "non-consecrated" properties not received in the judgment to pay legal fees.
Johnston said that "while we are grateful for the decision in our favor, we remain mindful of the toll this litigation has taken on all parties involved, and we continue to pray for all affected by the litigation."
THEOLOGY OR LEGALITY
Johnston said it would be a big mistake to characterize this simply as a "legal" battle. "Rather, at its core, this is (make no mistake about it) about theology, meaning who we are as a Church in relationship with Christ and the world. At stake is our polity, that is, our ancient and defining order of our being the Church. Thus, it is altogether a matter of nothing less than our very faithfulness. It will therefore take more than the courts to settle things."
The truth is "theology" and "polity" are not the same thing and only tangentially connected. Nowhere in St. Paul's epistles does the apostle make any case for the church's polity being of equal status with theology and his (St. Paul's) rejection of any kind of sexual behavior outside of marriage places the church's teaching on sexuality as it relates to marriage and the Body of Christ well above polity. Polity might be closely related with ecclesiology if in turn it is aligned with the "sound teaching" that St. Paul talks about. Johnston and St. Paul are on a collision course. But when you step over that line, as TEC and the diocese have done what matter polity if the theology of the Body and sexuality has been violated and soundly trashed?
Can one say at this point that TEC or the diocese is in "relationship with Christ and the world?" Perhaps the world, but certainly not Christ. "At stake is our polity," says Johnson. Not true. At stake is the veracity of gospel teaching about how we should behave as human beings who are made in the image of God. Scripture and 2000 years of apostolic preaching has never deviated one iota from the true nature of marriage and "same-gender" unions are not now nor have ever been on the church's agenda until recently.
Johnston then candidly admitted that while his legal efforts are bearing abundant fruit, that same fruit is making ecclesial life even more complex. Really. "Despite the recent court ruling in our favor, we simply don't know now what the future holds. Nonetheless, we have reason to be more confident than ever that our properties will be returned. For nearly two years, we have considered and discussed such a positive outcome, and now we must move to put contingency plans in place. We will be fully prepared for any eventuality."
Johnston then stepped into high gear to a real fantasy level by stating in his pastoral address, "No community of faith, no ministry program will be summarily thrown out of its current place. We will be as open as possible to creative agreements, generous provision, and true mutuality, while protecting the needs of our own ministries and the integrity of our witness... I want to have a witness to the world, particularly the Anglican world, not just an 'outcome' in the court. In my view, the Diocese of Virginia is best positioned of all Episcopal dioceses to make such an epoch-shaping witness. "
Does he imagine planting his diocesan flag say in the Anglican Province of Nigeria? He should run for president of Pogo Land if he does. CANA is the North American plant of Nigeria and he has just tossed them all out of his diocese. Does he think he would be welcome in Anglican provinces like Uganda, Kenya or Rwanda? What world is he living in?
The Episcopal Church's harsh, take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with church property has become the hallmark of Katharine Jefferts Schori's imprint. The denomination should have allowed the diocese to sit down at the table with the departing congregations and negotiate a fair settlement, as was initially proposed by Bishop James Lee. Alas, Jefferts Schori would not allow it. Johnston was happy to roll over even at a cost of $3 million... after all what are a few million bucks when it comes to holding on to properties at the price of mission?
As if to excite his followers, Johnston declaimed, "[But] be confident. God is faithful and gracious, and will continue to bless the Diocese of Virginia as we serve our Lord Jesus Christ: 'For this time. For all time.'"
Fantasies die-hard. Time will reveal all, but to date there is not a single diocese in TEC, which has embraced TEC's pansexual agenda that has grown as a result. Not one. God can never go against His own character or revealed will. He can never bless what is clearly sinful behavior. Johnston is whistling Dixie.
As the grieving begins, the Rev. John Yates, rector of the Falls Church breakaway congregation, issued a letter to his flock saying that while "feelings of anger, grief, fear or just uncertainty" are "surely normal, and healthy," that "we must, for planning purposes assume we'll be leaving. And while a move may be delayed for some time, we must be prepared for a move within the next six weeks."
They will lose their buildings, but as Stephen cried out as he was being stoned (Acts 7:48), "...the Most High does not live in houses made by men." Bishop Johnston might reflect on that. He has stoned the CANA parishes, but in the end he will lose, just as those who persecuted and stoned Stephen. The church went on to great triumph and growth and so will CANA. The epitaph of the Diocese of Virginia will be the epitaph of The Episcopal Church.
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