Some newspapers regularly tackle thorny topics in their opinion columns. Some very regularly approach matters involving what is more and more often being called the Anglican unpleasantness. Others weigh in less frequently, if at all, usually depending on their geographic relationship to a church that is stirring the unpleasantness pot, so to speak.
So it's always interesting when a newspaper that doesn't have that kind of proximity takes on the issue not only as an opinion piece but as an unbylined editorial. Granted, the Virginia Pilot, based in Hampton Roads, Va., may have had in mind the question of why commonwealth resources were being expended on the cases of defecting parishes in the Diocese of Virginia, particularly after the Virginia attorney general spoke up in favor of the departing congregations.
The editorial's position? This case could have implications reaching far beyond these churches in Virginia. Other denominations could be affected if secular courts are allowed to make decisions about church governance. And what happens once we start down that slippery slope?
Virginia's courts have been dragged into what appears on its face to be a property dispute, but a preliminary ruling shows how difficult it will be to sort out the legal issues without straying into questions of faith.
A Fairfax judge gave the breakaway parishes a boost when he concluded that their votes to split from the Episcopal diocese triggered a Reconstruction-era law. The statute was adopted to help Virginia churches break with their Northern counterparts because of disagreements over slavery.
The lawsuit rightly has leaders of other hierarchical denominations concerned that rules established over years, even centuries, could be challenged and nullified in a courtroom. That's about as appealing as a judicial interpretation of the book of Leviticus, and should trouble even the independent-minded Baptists, whose rules give individual congregations ownership of their churches.
Attorney General Bob McDonnell plunged into this theological thicket in January after attorneys for the Episcopal Church challenged the constitutionality of the 1867 law governing church break-ups. But McDonnell went beyond a defense of this rarely used statute, advocating for its use in this lawsuit and giving support to the dissenting congregations.
The Fairfax judge seems inclined to take that advice, but has scheduled a May hearing on the constitutional impact on church-state relations. The judge and the attorney general should take this opportunity to reconsider whether they want secular courts telling churches how to run their own affairs. They've already tramped too far onto sacred ground, but it's not too late to tip-toe away.
The editorial is here.