Friday, January 19, 2007

Virginia leadership declares church property 'abandoned'

Bishop says 'spiritual abandonment' of Episcopalians 'perhaps the greatest offense'

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Thursday, January 18, 2007

[Episcopal News Service] The Executive Board of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia January 18 authorized Bishop Peter Lee to "take such steps as may be necessary to recover or secure such real and personal property" of 11 congregations where a majority of the members and leaders have left the Episcopal Church.

The authorization came after the Executive Board declared the property to be abandoned under the diocese's canonical definitions (Canons 15.1, 15.2, 15.3), according to a statement posted on the diocese's website.

Lee has not taken any immediate actions, diocesan spokesperson Patrick Getlein said.

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). Virginia's diocesan canons concur with the national canons.

Also on January 18, the diocese's Standing Committee, during its regular monthly meeting, took up the issue of the status of the clergy attached to these congregations and "will communicate its determination to the Bishop according to the Canons," the news release said.

Lee, in a letter to the diocese, also released January 18, wrote that when the majority of the congregations' membership agreed to leave, "they left remaining Episcopal congregations in those places without vestries, without clergy and without their churches, whether the remaining congregations numbered one or 100 souls."

"The spiritual abandonment of their Episcopal brothers and sisters of the past, the present and the future, is perhaps the greatest offense for which there is no redress under our tradition," he wrote.

Lee outlined the efforts of Episcopalians in Heathsville, Herndon and Falls Church to re-group, writing that "there is life springing from these dry bones."

The bishop also described steps he and diocesan leadership took to accommodate those members who disagreed with decisions of the Episcopal Church. Those efforts included, Lee wrote, diocesan money for church planting, access to diocesan medical and dental insurance programs, many meetings that attempted "to find common ground on matters of theology," rejection of efforts to deny the congregations a vote at diocesan convention despite their refusal to fund the diocese's budget, and three invitations to retired Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey to conduct confirmations "when my episcopal presence was either specifically refused or would have been a source of tension for the membership."

"I endured being told that the parents of confirmands would not want me to lay hands on their children at confirmation and I have received other personal attacks including death wishes in letters, reports and public statements," he wrote.

Lee said that all the work was done in an attempt to accommodate the dissidents and to resolve the issue outside of the secular court system, but to no avail. The diocese has already been engaged in legal actions with the congregations as they attempt to retain the congregations' property.

"These differences are not about property but about the legacy we have received for the mission of Christ and our obligation to preserve that legacy for the future," he wrote, urging the diocese toward prayer for each other.

"I urge us to remember that in their call away from the Episcopal Church, they may be responding to a genuine call to new ministry in a different place and in a different way," Lee wrote of those who have left.

"The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia will mourn their loss. We will suffer from their absence in ways we cannot know at this time in our life. I believe that they, too, will know times when our absence from their life will be a source of great sorrow for them.

"My dear brothers and sisters, the Church in these communities may look different moving forward. We will look different as a Diocese. And the road ahead will be long and filled with opportunities to lose heart. We must always have our eyes fixed on God, not be anxious, and trust in the reliability of God's promises. For even in this, God is doing a new thing."

The 11 congregations (of the 195 in the diocese) where property has been declared abandoned are: Church of the Apostles, Fairfax; Church of the Epiphany, Herndon; Church of Our Saviour, Oatlands; Church of the Redeemer, Chantilly; Church of the Word, Gainesville; Potomac Falls Church, Sterling; St. Margaret's, Woodbridge; St. Paul's, Haymarket; St. Stephen's, Heathsville; The Falls Church, Falls Church; and Truro Church, Fairfax.

The majority of the laity and clergy of those congregations voted to sever ties with the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican Church of Nigeria by way of the Anglican District of Virginia, part of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). The members number 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 Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.


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