By Bill Turque and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 18, 2006; A01
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.
The defections are likely to continue. Two other small Northern Virginia churches, Our Saviour Episcopal in Oatlands and Church of the Epiphany in Herndon, are expected to vote on separation early next year.
Minns said he expects about 20 parishes nationwide to join CANA by year's end.
Nearly 1,000 Truro congregants sat in rapt silence at the end of the 11:15 a.m. service yesterday as Jim Oakes, the senior warden, announced that more than 90 percent of eligible voters resolved to sever ties with the U.S. church and retain control of church property.
"A new day has begun," Oakes said. The congregation then sang a hymn, No. 525, specially selected by Minns. It began, "The church's one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. . . ."
Outside after the service, members were somber but resolute about a decision they say culminated a long period of disenchantment with the Episcopal Church, dating back to the ordination of women in the 1970s. Their alienation grew with Robinson's election.
"I want to do what's right in the Lord's eyes," said Vicki Robb, 53, an Alexandria public relations executive, who said the church's leftward drift was becoming intolerable. "It's kind of embarrassing when you tell people that you're Episcopal."
Minns said the process of separation had been emotionally wrenching. "This is a family struggle, no question about that," he said. "And it is a very painful one, but we have managed to conduct the struggle in a way that has sought to honor those with whom we disagree."
Truro and The Falls Church were formed before the U.S. denomination existed. George Washington was a member of the vestry at The Falls Church.
Other Episcopal leaders said yesterday's vote was not surprising, given the increasingly conservative tilt of the parishes involved. "Frankly, anyone who didn't agree has long since left those parishes. They've been headed that way for years," said Joan Gundersen, president of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh.
The departure is regrettable, she said, adding: "Every time one of these churches leaves, their voice becomes an even smaller minority. And I'm sorry to see that. One of the beliefs of the Episcopal Church has been how we can live together and worship together under widely varying interpretations of belief."
Conservative congregations have left the church in the past, including in the 1970s, when ordinations of women began, and a number have done so since Robinson's election. In some cases, dissident churches have fought their diocese for the church property. Many court rulings have been in favor of the dioceses, although some recent cases in California have gone the other way.
Representatives of CANA, the Fairfax-based splinter group, said yesterday that they remain confident they can reach a settlement with the diocese that will allow them to retain the churches. "We expect to be able to settle the questions of property in a peaceful way," said the Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church.
Staff writer Christian Davenport contributed to this report.