Breaking: Diocese of Virginia wins reversal in CANA property case

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UPDATED: The Falls Church responds:

“Although we are profoundly disappointed by today’s decision, we offer our gratitude to Judge Bellows for his review of this case. As we prayerfully consider our legal options, we above all remain steadfast in our effort to defend the historic Christian faith. Regardless of today’s ruling, we are confident that God is in control, and that He will continue to guide our path,” said Jim Oakes, spokesperson for the seven Anglican congregations.


The Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, a historic property involved in the case, stated, “The core issue for us is not physical property, but theological and moral truth and the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world. Wherever we worship, we remain Anglicans because we cannot compromise our historic faith. Like our spiritual forebears in the Reformation, ‘Here we stand. So help us God. We can do no other.’”

At the National Review, Michael Potemra says the ruling is a big win that comes at a high price. He adds:

[Breakaway groups] believe the true church must not allow some of the opinions expressed in U.S. Episcopalianism, so conscience demands that they leave their father’s house; but I think I’m not alone in believing that these man-made divisions are evanescent, and that we will meet again.

Also, an email sent on behalf of Truro Church with today’s date suggests congregations use caution in their communications about how to frame the decision.

…any messages that are distributed to members be reviewed by each congregation’s legal counsel in advance since the wording could impact appeal possibilities.

The memo stresses churches consider basic facts:

Judge Bellows found against our churches and in favor of The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in the lawsuits that TEC and the Diocese filed against our churches.

Judge Bellows’ opinion directs that the real property (the land and buildings) of the churches and the personal property of the churches acquired before January 31 or February 1, 2007 (depending upon the congregation) are to be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

Judge Bellows’ opinion indicates that a proposed final order reflecting these rulings is to be submitted to the Court within 45 days

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Statement from the Diocese of Virginia:

Tonight, the Fairfax Circuit Court issued its ruling in favor of the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church in litigation seeking to recover Episcopal church property. “Our goal throughout this litigation has been to return faithful Episcopalians to their church homes and Episcopal properties to the mission of the Church,” said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia.

The court ruled that the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia have “a contractual and proprietary interest” in each of the properties subject to the litigation. The court ordered that all property subject to its ruling be turned over to the Diocese.

“We hope that this ruling will lead to our congregations returning to worship in their church homes in the near future, while finding a way to support the CANA congregations as they plan their transition,” said Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the Diocese and chief of staff.

Bishop Johnston added, “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.”

The ruling can be found here: http://www.thediocese.net/Customer-Content/WWW/CMS/files/property_ruling_1102012.pdf

This is the case involving two of the flagship breakaway churches, Truro and The Falls Church, each of which was led by a key figure in the anti-gay faction that broke away from The Episcopal Church after the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

Judge Randy Bellows, who issued this ruling, originally ruled in favor of the breakaway congregations in a ruling he released in June 2008, but the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in June 2010 that the statue on which he based his opinion was not applicable.

Judge Bellows wrote:

When this Court considers the applicable statutes, deeds, the Constitution and Canons of TEC and the Diocese, and the course of dealings between the parties, and applies “neutral principles of law” as established by United States and Virginia Supreme Court precedent, it is clear – indeed, to this Court, it is overwhelmingly evident – that TEC and the Diocese have contractual and proprietary interests in the real and personal property of each of these seven churches. ….

The CANA Congregations suggest that a ruling for the denomination would be to defer to the hierarchy “with a vengeance.” This Court disagrees. Rather, the finding here that TEC and the Diocese have a contractual and proprietary interest in the property of these Episcopal churches is no more than a recognition that, while the CANA Congregations had an absolute right to depart from TEC and the Diocese, they had no right to take these seven Episcopal churches with them.

UPDATE: The Washington Post:

The 113-page ruling was handed down Tuesday by Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows. It was not immediately clear whether the seven congregations would appeal. They are part of a movement called the Anglican Church in North America, and all believe that they — not the Episcopal Church — represent true Anglicanism on the continent.

If they decide not to appeal, the seven congregations would have to vacate their churches, including some of the largest and most prominent in the region. Among them are The Falls Church and Truro Church in Northern Virginia, where thousands of people worship.

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13 Responses to "Breaking: Diocese of Virginia wins reversal in CANA property case"
  1. “The core issue for us is not physical property, but theological and moral truth and the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world. "

    Then why didn't you leave the property that was not yours to take and move on?

    Eric

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  2. I pray, with Grandmere Mimi, that the end of litigation may be the beginning of reconciliation.

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  3. This is certainly an important decision, covering a lot of areas. Here's the issue and the question I have for legal minds.l The judge has ruled that the Dennis Canon and the consequent diocesan canon to not establish a trust relationship, but do establish a "contractual relationship" and a "course of dealings" that contribute to establishing a proprietary relationship for Episcopal Church and the diocese. Is this something that would be unique to Virginia, or would such an argument be applicable in other states?

    Marshall Scott

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  4. Does anyone know of a centralized place that is keeping track of all of these cases and archiving the results as they are decided? I have a sense of a clear trend, but I'm also aware that I'm not fully "tuned in" on some of this.

    I am very thankful that Bp. Johnston, in a moment that could be considered a "victory" against an "other," instead offers a reminder and a prayer that this is a process that has taken a toll. This reminds me of the resolution after the Civil War, which our General Convention amended from thanking God for "union victory" to "a cessation of hostilities." The comment mentioned in one article that these "man-made divisions are evanescent, and that we will meet again" is apt; we eyes and we hands have need of one another, but even if we find ourselves in different places for the moment, it doesn't stop us being members of one body.

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  5. @Marshall, as I recall (but haven't checked recently) Virginia took some action in the 1960s or 70s or thereabouts that affected the nature of trusts that was pretty specific to Virginia, and that led Judge Bellows to rule the first time around that the Dennis Canon didn't comply with state law. So, the finding, I think, is pretty Virginia-specific. That said, the issue of whether a trust exist is pretty much the key question in all of the property cases, and rulings have been heavily in TEC's favor, but not uniform.

    @Benedict, to my knowledge the only standing loss (so to speak) that the Episcopal Church has suffered was in the case of All Saints, Pawley's Island in the Diocese of South Carolina. I don't know whether that case is under appeal. Other cases are under appeal, but in those cases the existing ruling is in favor of the Episcopal Church.

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  6. This is not very Christian of me, but I suspect many of us are thinking the same thing: while we support our leaders' stance on remaining as conciliatory as possible towards the dissidents, they entirely deserved this reversal, in a moral sense as well as a legal one. Their views towards LGBT individuals are noxious and dangerous. And unfortunately this will not stop them.

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  7. Wherever we worship, we remain Anglicans because we cannot compromise our historic faith.

    I was not aware that lack of compromise was an Anglican virtue. I've been led to believe that quite the opposite is true. And how "historic" is opposition to same-sex unions and LGBT ordinations?

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  8. Interesting. The Virginia situation seemed to be the muddiest with their quaint laws dating back centuries.

    So, as Jim notes above, only the South Carolina case remains, and that is clouded by Bishop Lawrence apparently trying to give away properties. Approving him as bishop there is, in hindsight, a regrettable move.

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  9. On behalf of myself and millions of LGBT Anglicans Africans in Nigeria, Uganda and beyond (only slightly assuming on my part), I wish to thank The Episcopal Church for keeping the door open and light burning for everyone...everyone means everyone at Church and I know Archbishop Nicolas Okoh is welcome to visit, and worship, at any parish of the TEC Diocese of Virginia/beyond too...I´ll move over and be glad to share my pew.

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  10. The Pawleys Island ruling was specific to the case in hand, Jim, and was not appealed both because it was a ruling of the state supreme course and because the plaintiff in the case, the diocese of South Carolina, was an exceedingly reluctant participant in the case, with, as recent events have fully demonstrated, no interest whatever in eliciting a legal affirmation of a hierarchical ecclesiastical model.

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  11. I am very gratified by this decision. Hopefully we are always guided by the knowledge that the "We of God is always in the difference" rather than in the we of Anglican Tradition.

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