By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Jim Pierobon, a member of The Falls Church serving as a spokesman for both Fairfax churches, said he believes Akinola is trying to ease tensions between Nigerian Anglicans and Muslims by supporting the law. That doesn't mean the leadership issue doesn't weigh on Pierobon's conscience.
"I can't ignore what's gone on," he said Friday. "It gives me pause. But I understand it well enough that it's not a show-stopper."
William Fetsch was one of only two members of the 18-member Falls Church vestry who last month voted to recommend not splitting. A member since 1980, he said Saturday that he believes conservatives have an obligation to stay in the U.S. church and "bear witness" to their viewpoint on things such as homosexuality and the literal truth of Jesus's resurrection.
"I still think it's premature," he said of a split. "We've been inhibited in no way from preaching the gospel as we see fit."
Some conservatives were taken aback by a letter issued Friday by Bishop Peter James Lee of the Diocese of Virginia, reminding voting churches that they could be in for a costly fight over property and clergy pensions and health care, rather than a peaceful settlement.
"If your church decides to leave," the letter says, "I believe your successors in the future will regret that decision and its destructive consequences for the whole church."
Pierobon said he thought that Lee was trying to intimidate congregants from voting yes on the split.
Other religious denominations have been roiled in recent years by the issue of homosexuality, but a major schism would be unprecedented in the Episcopal Church, which remained united even through the Civil War.
"The difference between the Episcopal Church and the others is that Episcopalians are really loath to split about anything," said Diana Butler Bass, a U.S. church historian who believes politics, not theology, has been driving divisions in the Episcopal Church since the 1980s. "What will win now? This politicized culture, or that old Anglican, spiritual way of being in the world?"
The size of the division in the U.S. church is hotly debated on blogs across the spectrum. About 140 dissident churches have joined a splinter group called the Anglican Mission in America, said the Rev. David C. Anderson, an orthodox advocate. After Jefferts Schori's election this summer, seven of the 111 U.S. dioceses rejected her authority. Since 2003, the U.S. church estimates that it lost nearly 115,000 members. Its membership is now about 2.3 million.
As the San Joaquin vote approached, Jefferts Schori announced Thursday she would formalize the creation of a high-ranking position to oversee the seven dissenting dioceses -- a move some saw as conciliatory, others as a last-ditch effort.
"This isn't a fun thing," said Ward LeHardy, 71, whose Northern Neck church, St. Stephens of Heathsville, plans to vote this Sunday whether to join CANA. LeHardy's family has been in the Episcopal Church for 150 years. "But it's our belief that if you believe in the Lord and you believe in what the Bible says, then you better do something. Otherwise, you're complicit."
Staff writer Alan Cooperman, staff researcher Karl Evanzz and graphics editor April Umminger contributed to his report.