After a judge’s ruling last month in favor of the Episcopal Church, settlement talks are underway for a massive property swap that would bring to an end the most expensive litigation — and perhaps the most watched — in Episcopal Church history. While the breakaway congregations still can appeal, both sides said they are trying to work out the details of the property turnover.
“Everyone is moving on the assumption that they need to be prepared to move,” said Scott Ward, attorney for the Falls Church congregants who broke away.
The two sides are so close to a settlement that the Falls Church members who remained with the Episcopal Church and have been meeting in a Presbyterian church basement across the street are planning Easter services back in their old church, a large, historic property. Members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal in tiny Heathsville on the Northern Neck are mapping out the prayers they will say and the music they will play as they march down the street to reclaim their building.
The bishop of Virginia’s Episcopal diocese, the country’s largest, laid out a plan in his annual address late last month to reclaim the church buildings. He called the plan Dayspring, a scriptural reference to a new day, which he believes is upon the diocese.
“It is not overstating the case to say that this is one of the most defining moments in all of our 400-year history,” Bishop Shannon Johnston said.
When the conservative congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church in late 2006 and early 2007, the case drew worldwide attention. The breakaway members said the denomination had grown too liberal in its theology, and they objected to its ordaining gay clergy and celebrating same-sex relationships, among other things. They chose to become part of the booming, conservative Anglican Church of Nigeria, a separate branch of worldwide Anglicanism. The Episcopal Church is the American branch.
The vast majority of the members who belonged to the old congregations chose to split with the Episcopal Church. Lawyers representing the breakaway groups argued in court that they had legal claim to the properties. In the early months after the split, the conservatives threatened to have Episcopal priests arrested if they set foot on the properties.
Meanwhile, Episcopal blogs across the country slammed the conservatives for joining forces with a Nigerian bishop who is an outspoken opponent of gay relationships.