Monday, December 18, 2006

Virginia diocese promises 'every encouragement' to Episcopalians remaining in disaffected congregations

Presiding Bishop pledges partnership, urges entire church to pray and work for healing

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia said December 18 that it has the agreement of people who voted December 17 to leave the Episcopal Church that they will not attempt to transfer church property to their ownership for 30 days.

In return, the diocese promised not to initiate any litigation concerning the departures for the same amount of time, according to a statement issued after Bishop Peter Lee, the diocese's Executive Board and Standing Committee met in an emergency joint session the afternoon of December 18.

"The Episcopal Church is going to be there in partnership with the Diocese of Virginia to help bring healing in any way that we can, and to continue to remind everybody that we are engaged in larger mission," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told ENS.

"If some people decide they need to go then our best recourse is to bless their journey and to remind people that the door will remain open and the porch light on," she said.

Eight of Virginia's 195 congregations announced December 17 that their members had voted to sever ties with the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican Church of Uganda or the Anglican Church of Nigeria by way of the Anglican District of Virginia, part of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).

The Anglican Communion's secretary general, Kenneth Kearon, said in a December 15 statement that CANA had "not petitioned the Anglican Consultative Council for any official status within the Communion's structures, nor has the Archbishop of Canterbury indicated any support for its establishment."

The members of the eight congregations amount to about 8,000 of the diocese's roughly 90,000 Episcopalians. The Episcopal Church includes some 7,200 congregations in its 100 domestic dioceses, and about 150 in its 10 overseas dioceses and one convocation.

The eight congregations are "a very, very small percentage of the church and the vast bulk of the church is healthy, is engaged in mission and ministry, and that is going to continue," Jefferts Schori said. "It will continue to bless the communities where those churches are."

Jefferts Schori called on the rest of the Episcopal Church to "remember to pray for everybody involved – those who feel a need to leave and those who remain – to pray that those people and their families can find some peace and remember that communities can reach beyond this kind of division"

She said that Episcopal Church members everywhere ought to "continue to be involved in mission and ministry in their own congregations" as these issues are being resolved.

"There's plenty to heal in this world of ours," she said. "Most of us are concerned about that and are working to follow Jesus' call to love our neighbor."

"At this time of year it's appropriate to remember that Jesus came among us and he wasn't welcomed everywhere he went. If some people feel some rejection in these actions, it's not unlike that which Jesus experienced. That's part of the Christian journey. It is what it means to pick up your cross."

Lee said in the diocese's statement that "our primary concern is for the membership of the Diocese of Virginia."

"In some of our churches where that membership has now been significantly reduced, there are faithful Episcopalians who need to be given every encouragement to establish structures necessary for their continuity as the Episcopal Church," he said.

The Executive Board and Standing Committee said that they had "authorized the bishop to explore all options with the Episcopalians who remain and to take appropriate actions for their support and full participation in the life of the diocese."

The Executive Board, Standing Committee and bishop also established a seven-member property commission to meet with departing members to discuss real and personal property matters on a case-by-case basis. It will make recommendations to Lee, the Standing Committee, and the Executive Board, according to the statement.

"As I have said previously, our polity maintains that all real and personal property is held in trust for the Episcopal Church and the diocese," said Lee. "As stewards of this historic trust, we fully intend to assert the church's canonical and legal rights over these properties. The members of the property commission are charged with addressing those matters on behalf of the diocese on a case by case basis."

According to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, dioceses are created or dissolved only by acts of General Convention (Articles V and VI) and dioceses create or dissolve Episcopal congregations in their midst. Congregational property is held in trust for the diocese, and the diocese holds property in trust for the wider church (Canon I.7.4 of the Episcopal Church). Canon 15.1 of Virginia's diocesan canons concurs with the national canons.

The full text of the diocesan statement is available here.

According to a statement of the diocese's website, the congregations that announced their vote tallies on December 17 were Christ the Redeemer, Centreville; Church of the Apostles (, Fairfax; Church of the Word, Gainesville; Potomac Falls Episcopal Church, Sterling; St. Margaret's, Woodbridge; St. Stephen's, Heathsville; The Falls Church, Falls Church; and Truro Church, Fairfax.

The status of St. Paul's, Haymarket, which was due to announce its decision December 17, remained unclear, according to the diocesan list.

Four Virginia congregations had previously announced their disaffiliation with the diocese. They are All Saints, Dale City; Christ Our Lord Anglican Church, Lake Ridge; Church of the Holy Spirit, Ashburn; and South Riding Episcopal Church, Fairfax.

Two other congregations have announced their intentions to put Episcopal membership to a future vote, the statement said. They are Church of the Epiphany, Herndon, and Our Saviour, Oatlands.-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.


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