7 Va. Episcopal Parishes Vote to Sever Ties

By Bill Turque and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 18, 2006

At least seven Virginia Episcopal parishes, opposed to the consecration of a gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex unions, have voted overwhelmingly to break from the U.S. church in a dramatic demonstration of widening rifts within the denomination.

Two of the congregations are among the state's largest and most historic: Truro Church in Fairfax City and The Falls Church in Falls Church, which have roots in the 1700s. Their leaders have been in the vanguard of a national effort to establish a conservative alternative to the Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of the 77 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.

The result of the week-long vote, announced yesterday, sets up the possibility of a lengthy ecclesiastical and legal battle for property worth tens of millions of dollars. Buildings and land at Truro and The Falls Church are valued at about $25 million, according to Fairfax County records.

The votes are fresh evidence of an increasingly bitter split within the U.S. Episcopal Church. Seven of its 111 dioceses have rejected the authority of Presiding U.S. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, installed in November as the first woman to head an Anglican church. Schori supports V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

"I grew up in the Episcopal Church. I hope I don't cry when I talk about this," said a shaken Katrina Wagner, 37, an accountant and member of Truro's vestry, after the congregation's vote was announced. "But the issue is: Are we going to follow Scripture?"

Bishop Peter James Lee of the Diocese of Virginia said yesterday in a statement that he was "saddened" by the churches' decision but that he would not yield in seeking to retain ownership of the parishes' land and buildings. The two congregations voted not only to sever ties with the U.S. church but also for a resolution saying that they should keep the property.

"As stewards of this historic trust, we fully intend to assert the Church's canonical and legal rights over these properties," said Lee, who is scheduled to meet today with the executive board and standing committee of the diocese to discuss the situation.

Truro and The Falls Church, with a combined membership of more than 3,000, will form the core of what is envisioned as a new Fairfax-based mission of the conservative Episcopal Church of Nigeria. The head of the Nigerian church, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has voiced support for a pending law in that country that includes prison sentences for gay sexual activity.

The Rev. Martyn Minns of Truro Church, who is missionary bishop of the splinter group known as CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America), said that although the dissident Virginia churches believe that homosexuality is banned by Scripture, they do not support criminalization of gay sex.

Akinola's spokesman and his advocates have said he does not advocate aggressively pursuing the jailing of homosexuals. His advocates say he is trying to navigate an explosive cultural situation in Nigeria and appease Muslim leaders.

The other Virginia congregations that announced votes to leave the U.S. church are Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, St. Stephen's in Heathsville, St. Margaret's Church in Woodbridge, Potomac Falls Episcopal Church in Sterling and Church of the Word in Gainesville. Another church participating in the vote, St. Paul's in Haymarket, is expected to release results today. Last week, members of All Saints' Church in Dale City announced a vote to separate.

In all, the eight parishes that finished voting yesterday represent about 5 percent of the 90,000-member Virginia diocese.

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