VIRGINIA: Diocese, Episcopal Church settle property disputes with two congregations

September 28, 2008

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church have reached a legal settlement with Potomac Falls Church in Potomac Falls and Christ the Redeemer Church in Chantilly.

 

Under the settlement, which includes the Episcopal Church, the two congregations will make a payment (the amount of which was not disclosed) to the diocese and will be released from any claims or future liability arising from the litigation. Neither congregation held any real property.

The payment, which the diocese said in a news release would come "in recognition of past diocesan efforts to build, grow and support Potomac Falls and Christ the Redeemer," will support diocesan ministries.

"We are grateful to the leadership of Potomac Falls Church and Christ the Redeemer for their courage and willingness to resolve this dispute in a mutually satisfactory manner," Virginia Bishop Peter Lee said in the release. "The diocese's main concern has always been to safeguard the legacy of Episcopal faith and worship in Virginia. This litigation is unfortunate and we are grateful to have found an agreement that allows Potomac Falls Church and Christ the Redeemer to return to what matters most: knowing and serving God through Jesus Christ."

Potomac Falls and Christ the Redeemer were two of 11 congregations in which the majority of the laity and clergy voted to leave the diocese over theological disagreements. The departing members joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). The other nine congregations filed petitions in local courts seeking declarations that the congregations' property belonged to them. Virginia and the Episcopal Church opposed those requests and asked the courts to declare that the property must be held and used for the mission of the Episcopal Church and the diocese.

The recent settlement does not include those nine other congregations and the trial involving the remaining congregations, scheduled to begin October 6, will focus solely on the issue of which properties currently held by the CANA congregations are actually subject to the state's so-called "Division Statute" (Section 57-9(A)). The law is triggered when there is a so-called "division" of a church or religious society.

The issues that a Fairfax County Court judge will determine (either during or after the trial) include whether the congregations in which the departing members are located actually own the specific items of real and personal property that they are attempting to take under the statute, whether deed restrictions in some cases require the property to remain with entities affiliated with the Episcopal Church, and, in one instance, whether a last-minute transfer of property was valid.

"Once these issues are decided, the diocese will appeal the court's rulings on the applicability and validity of the Division Statute," the diocese said in a news release. The Presiding Bishop's Office has said that the Episcopal Church will also appeal the trial court's decisions.

While the diocese said that there are "grave concerns about the validity and fairness of the voting procedures" used when the departure votes were taken in late 2006, it will "forgo judicial review of that process to focus on those issues that will most effectively and quickly return Episcopalians to their church homes" and overturn the "division statute." The Episcopal Church also told the court that it will not press any arguments concerning the validity or fairness of the voting.

"In the Episcopal Church, congregations exist because they are in communion with the bishop of a diocese, through recognition by diocesan governing bodies," Lee said. "They cannot unilaterally disestablish themselves or remove themselves from a diocese, and take Episcopal property with them, using the secular court system to validate their actions."

The diocese has contended that the statute, which is unique to Virginia, "is uniquely hostile to religious freedom and our faith," in Lee's words. Fourteen other denominations and denominational judicatories, plus the other two Episcopal dioceses in the state of Virginia, support the contention of the diocese and the Episcopal Church that the "division statute" is unconstitutional.

More information about the property dispute case, including links to many court filings, is available here.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.