Seven years after 15 conservative Virginia congregations made global news by breaking away from the Episcopal Church — and refusing to give up tens of millions of dollars in property — the Supreme Court on Monday ended the complex legal dispute by declining to take up an appeal by the last remaining plaintiff.
The Falls Church Anglican, a 2,000-member breakaway congregation, had asserted that the nearly 300-year-old sprawling property belonged to the Anglican group because the Episcopal Church “left” its umbrella Anglican tradition by becoming more liberal in interpreting scripture and ordaining gay and lesbian clergy.
While Monday’s action ended the conflict by ensuring that the Episcopal Church can keep the property, it left both congregations to focus on rebuilding.
For the breakaway Anglicans, that means eventually moving their huge congregation from a large high school gym and several other borrowed locations to a property of their own — once they find one. For the Episcopal congregation that remains, it means trying to grow its 200-person community into one worthy of the large and valuable property it now gets to keep.
“In some ways, it’s like a divorce. There are good things about divorces, but by and large, divorce is not a good thing,” said John Yates, rector of the breakaway group. “It’s been sad, but I would not go back. . . . We’re moving forward.”
The splits, which happened in late 2006 and early 2007, in some cases divided families and longtime friends who disagreed in particular about the Episcopal Church ordaining openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Both sides at times described the conflict as embarrassing — to see churches spending so much money on lawyers instead of on the needy.
The cases drew global attention for a few reasons. One issue was the size and wealth of some of the breakaway congregations. The multiple properties sit on a 30-acre compound and are valued at about $40 million. The conservatives decided to place themselves instead under the leadership of a controversial anti-gay Nigerian Anglican archbishop. And the conflict reflected standoffs occurring across American religious communities about issues such as the divinity of Jesus and what the Bible intends about human sexuality.
As the case made its long way through the courts, the country became much more open to gay equality. Philip Jenkins, a prominent religious historian at Baylor University, said “the basic landscape” in how Americans think about sexuality, gender and Scripture is changing quickly.
For example, he said, many traditional Christians who a decade ago wouldn’t consider gay equality now embrace it in terms of how people deserve to be treated in civil society, even as they remain closed to redefining Christian marriage.
However, he said, both the Episcopal Church — of which he is a member — and the breakaway movement of conservative Anglicans are not strong. Liberal religion, such as Episcopalianism, “is in steep decline,” he said. The breakaway movement of conservatives from mainline Protestantism “plateaued.”
The case began in late 2006, when traditional Virginia congregations, from tiny ones in Leesburg and the Northern Neck to the large Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church and Truro in Fairfax voted to split from the Episcopal Church. Steeped in history and tradition, Truro and the Falls Church were formed before the denomination existed. George Washington was a member of the vestry at the Falls Church.
As soon as the breakaways made clear they weren’t leaving the properties, the two sides headed to court and remained there. Eleven congregations were involved in the initial litigation, but over the years, congregations settled with the diocese and moved on.
Meanwhile a few small congregations of Episcopalians hoping to return to their buildings set up homes in borrowed churches.
In 2012, the Virginia Supreme Court ordered the breakaways to turn over the properties, including the money, to the diocese. Eventually, only the large Falls Church remained in court, meeting in alternative spaces as the case continiued.
On Monday, both sides said it was unfortunate to spend so many millions on legal bills but seemed to think it was worth it.
“It’s regrettable when someone decides their differences are so great they have to work apart. I honestly miss those colleagues who chose to walk apart from us. They diminish our diversity,” said the Rev. John Ohmer, pastor at the Falls Church.
During the litigation, the Falls Church has been subsidized by the diocese and the national denomination but will have to find a way to maintain the large property despite its small congregation. Ohmer said he was confident it would be able to grow.
Yates acknowledged how the American conversation has changed on sexuality since the topic animated many church discussions in the early 2000s.
“Instead of trying to say, ‘We believe this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong,’ I think we’re trying to go back and understand God’s intention for sexuality from the very beginning. We’re trying to look at it in a fresh light. While we still believe marriage is a heterosexual union for life, we realize this is under intense scrutiny in the culture and we’re trying to talk about it in ways that people will understand and think about,” Yates said. “We’d not want our identity to hinge on those issues.”
Ohmer said the Episcopal Church had also put a great deal of thought into how to interpret Scripture before embracing gay equality.
“There’s been a debate in the Episcopal Church for 50 years [over how to read the Bible,] but it was only recently when some people unfortunately decided to separate themselves,” he said. The change in the denomination’s stance, he said, “wasn’t because we weren’t reading our Bibles but precisely because we were reading our Bibles.”