Conservatives and common sense together won a big victory last week when a Virginia state judge ruled in favor of parishioners in 11 individual churches who have broken away from the Virginia Diocese and the national governing body of the U.S. Episcopal Church.
By astonishingly overwhelming votes within each congregation, the parishioners decided instead to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), which is affiliated with the worldwide Anglican Communion through the Church of Nigeria. Naturally, the state and national Episcopal churches have not taken kindly to the breakaway parishes, and have sued to force the parishioners to leave the church properties involved. What the parishioners won on April 4 was just the first battle in what may be a long-running, multi-pronged lawsuit, but it was a hugely important victory nonetheless. Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled that something called the Virginia Division Statute means what it very clearly states, which is that the majority of a church parish is entitled to its property when there is a division within the congregation — and that the 90-plus percent vote in eight of those 11 parishes (the lowest vote in favor of breaking away was 72 percent) clearly represent a “division” from the Episcopal Church.
The 11 parishes are theologically more “conservative” or “traditionalist” than is the institutional U.S. Episcopal Church (although their worship styles can tend far less toward traditional Episcopalian ceremony and more toward Evangelical enthusiasm). One of them, The Falls Church, is among the oldest churches in the nation, and it and nearby Truro Church both have large and active congregations that have spent many millions of dollars vastly expanding the physical plants of each parish. The Falls Church boasts significant numbers of current and former Bush administration officials and conservative journalists within its membership.
The national media tend to portray the split between these parishes and the Episcopal Church as being mostly about issues of sexuality, particularly homosexuality. And to be sure, those differences exist, although the conventional portrayal — of the conservative parishes as being brutally censorious while the national Episcopal Church is merely “tolerant” — is both simplistic and skewed. But the differences between CANA and the Episcopal Church involve issues both more numerous and deeper, theologically, than mere battles over whether to ordain lesbians or perform same-sex rituals. And it’s also not a mere battle of conservative political activists versus liberal political activists; it’s more a case where the conservatives abjure politics within worship, whereas the national Episcopal Church seems to believe that politics itself — specifically, liberal politics — is a form of worship.
Go to the national church website, and the site map doesn’t even include the word “Creed” — not Nicene, not Apostles’ — because almost nothing in the national church seems focused on internal spiritual beliefs. To quote one of the site’s featured mini-essays (a highly representative example), “It’s not about having answers as much as it is about engaging a story. It is about your story and how your story connects to an ancient story of desert wanderers that, in time, came to see that humanity and this energy they called God mingled and existed through Christ and thus, exists in all of humanity.”
But even the Episcopal Church website’s vapid pop psychology is overwhelmed by the volume of political statements and programs that make the site little distinguishable in tone or focus from that of, say, the Americans for Democratic Action. The first listed “mission” of the church is “justice and peacemaking,” which has subsets that advocate “speak[ing] truth to the powerful,” “social justice ministry,” “criminal justice,” “racism” defined not just as prejudice but only as “prejudice coupled with power,” (hint: black Americans therefore can’t be racist), and an “Office of Government Relations” which sees its goals as “including issues of international peace and justice, human rights, immigration, welfare, poverty, hunger, health care, violence, civil rights, the environment, racism and issues involving women and children.”
Who has time to save souls when Caesar needs so much guidance?
NEVERTHELESS, THE CIVIL LAW is and must be neutral about who has a more noble or rewarding faith. The breakaway parishes ought to win every facet of the lawsuit not because their beliefs or their politics are better, but because both law and equity, along with common sense, are on their side. Not only does Virginia state law (the Division Statute) explicitly apply to just such a situation as now exists, but the history especially of The Falls Church argues against the claims of the Virginia Diocese with which they have disassociated.
First, The Falls Church was founded, formed, and developed long before the diocese, or the national Episcopal Church, even existed. Title to the land and buildings is held by the individual churches’ trustees, not by the diocese. These churches (and others) helped create the diocese, not vice versa. And, to the tune of many, many millions of dollars, these churches have supported the diocese financially, not taken from the diocese. The very same sets of parishioners who voted so overwhelmingly to leave the Episcopal Church are the ones who on their own, without diocesan help, raised the vast sums of money needed to expand, improve, modernize and beautify their church properties. Why the diocese should be able, despite all those facts, to swoop in and claim the land and buildings (to be peopled by whom, one wonders?) out from under the parishioners who paid for and nurtured them is a question that surpasseth human understanding.
Boiled down to their essence, the Episcopal Church arguments against this are twofold — and nonsense twice over. First, the Episcopal Church will raise a federal First Amendment (free exercise of religion) issue, saying in effect that the state has no say over the internal laws of an organized Church. Because the organized Church (in other words, the institutional structure, the bureaucracy of the Diocese of Virginia and the U.S. Episcopal Church) has bylaws that claim corporate ownership of all individual churches’ parish property, the state supposedly must uphold those bylaws despite any claims, evidence, or history to the contrary. Second, they will argue that “hierarchical” churches (e.g., Episcopal, Catholic), unlike “congregational” churches (e.g. United Church of Christ), are indivisible without the assent of the whole body (in this case, the diocese) — much the same way that Lincoln argued that the Union was indivisible.
Of course, their arguments fail the smell test, because a civic polity and a religious one are two entirely different things. At issue in the lawsuit are civic property rights, which are always governed by the state, not the spiritual matters that are exclusively (and rightly) the province of churches alone.
Throughout this whole fight, the CANA churches have offered to negotiate a financial settlement, and they have kept their rhetoric low-key and respectful. After last Friday’s ruling, Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of the new Anglican District of Virginia (the group of breakaway churches), struck just the right tone in his statement. “Let us choose healing over litigation,” he said, “and peaceful co-existence over lawsuits, and let us devote all our resources to serving Christ and helping others around the world.”
If only the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia would be so reasonable. The congregations of the CANA parishes built, care for, and worship in their churches. The Episcopal Diocese ought to adhere to the scriptural admonition against coveting those properties the diocese had no part in creating or maintaining. To do otherwise — to continue attempts to confiscate those properties — is to accomplish the exact opposite of social justice.