Diocese Declares Time Out on Lawsuits

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A day after members of nine conservative Episcopal congregations in Virginia announced that they were separating from the national church, officials from the diocese said yesterday that they had reached an agreement with the breakaway churches not to file lawsuits against one another for a month.

However, it wasn't clear last night that the breakaway churches were in agreement.

Jim Pierobon, a spokesman for the dissidents, said they learned about the diocese's announcement "when we saw it on their Web site." He said they would not have an immediate comment on the diocese's characterization of the deal.

Departing members also agreed not to "attempt to transfer church property," according to a statement released by the Diocese of Virginia. Members of those churches voted explicitly to try to retain their properties, which the diocese argues belongs to it and to the national church.

After the announcement Sunday of the parish votes, Virginia Bishop Peter James Lee met other diocesan officials to discuss supporting Episcopalians in breakaway churches who do not want to separate from the Episcopal Church. They also discussed the potential legal battle between the diocese and dissidents over church property, said diocesan spokesman Patrick Getlein.

In congregations where most members voted to leave, Lee said in the statement, "there are faithful Episcopalians who need to be given every encouragement to establish structures necessary for their continuity as the Episcopal Church."

Lee also established a special commission charged with addressing property issues on behalf of the diocese. Lee has said the diocese will look at each breakaway church's situation on a case by case basis.

The nine congregations took multi-day votes this month on whether to leave the Episcopal Church, which most of their members feel is straying from proper Scriptural interpretation. The nine were Church of the Apostles in Fairfax City, Church of the Word in Gainesville, Truro Church in Fairfax City, The Falls Church in Falls Church, St. Stephen's in Heathsville, St. Margaret's in Woodbridge, Potomac Falls in Sterling, Christ the Redeemer in Centreville and St. Paul's in Haymarket.

Four other Virginia churches in the past year have taken similar actions. The 13 churches represent about 7 percent of the diocese's congregations and about 17 percent of its average Sunday attendance.

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