Episcopal Churches To Vote on Departure
Monday, December 4, 2006
Two of the country's largest and most historic Episcopal congregations -- both in Fairfax County -- will vote next week on whether to leave the U.S. church on ideological grounds and affiliate instead with a controversial Nigerian archbishop. The decision could lead to a bitter court battle and the loss of $25 million in property.
Many members of The Falls Church and Truro Church, as well as some conservative leaders around the country, hope a split will establish a legal structure that would make it easier for dozens more like-minded congregations to also depart the national denomination.
Some conservatives in the Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of the worldwide Anglican Communion, believe the church abandoned Scripture by installing a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, among other things. Those feelings of alienation were strengthened when Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori -- who supports the New Hampshire bishop -- was elected this summer to lead the national church.
Three other churches in the 193-congregation Virginia diocese -- the nation's largest -- are also voting this month. And Saturday, the Associated Press reported that leaders of the San Joaquin, Calif., diocese voted to affirm their membership within the Anglican Communion, a slap to the U.S. church that some see as a first step toward a later vote to separate. That would be the first entire diocese to leave the mother church.
Although some orthodox congregations have been leaving since 2003 -- as some did in the 1970s, when ordinations of women began -- advocates think they are getting closer to creating a new, U.S.-based umbrella organization that would essentially compete with the Episcopal Church. And the two Fairfax churches are on the vanguard of the movement, which could lead to massive changes in the 226-year-old denomination, years of painful litigation or both.
"In one sense there is a sadness because this feels like a death," said Mary Springmann, a soft-spoken stay-at-home mother who worships at Truro and plans to vote to split when a week of voting begins Sunday. "Like someone who has been gravely ill for a long time, you keep hoping there's going to be a recovery. And at some point you realize it's not going to happen. Right now . . . there is a feeling of hope and expectancy about where God is going to lead us next. It's kind of exciting."
If the votes at The Falls Church and Truro succeed, as their leaders predict, the 3,000 active members of the two churches would join a new, Fairfax-based organization that answers to Nigerian Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, leader of the 17 million-member Nigerian church and an advocate of jailing gays. The new group hopes to become a U.S.-based denomination for orthodox Episcopalians.
How many congregations will take this route is unknown, with the likelihood of costly litigation over historic, valuable properties and bitterness infecting a holy space. Even church centrists estimate that 15 percent of U.S. Episcopalians would leave the national church if their congregations could keep their church buildings and remain in the Communion.
The Falls Church and Truro alone are worth more than $25 million in real estate, according to county records, not to mention the powerful sentimental value of churches that were formed in the 1700s -- before the U.S. denomination even existed -- when they were still part of the Church of England. George Washington was a member of the vestry at The Falls Church.
Since the Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who is openly gay, was made a bishop in 2003, dozens of conservative U.S. congregations have dissolved, lost many members or gone to court with their dioceses over property as the congregations sought to leave the national church. But many traditionalists see a new phase since Jefferts Schori was elected national bishop.
That congregations with the prestige and size of Truro and The Falls Church are considering leaving, and the potential for an entire diocese in California to split off, has added momentum to the national movement to split. So has the development of the Fairfax-based Convocation for Anglicans in North America. The group attracted attention this summer when Rector Martyn Minns of Truro started a Virginia-based "mission" of the Episcopal Church of Nigeria at CANA -- a twist on the typical missionary paradigm.
Some members of the two Fairfax churches say they are comfortable with the arrangement because Minns is their "missionary bishop." However, they know there are questions about a suburban Washington congregation technically under the leadership of Akinola, who has supported a new Nigerian law that penalizes gay activity, whether private or "a public show of same sex amorous relationship," with jail time.