Episcopalians Readying Legal Challenge

The Associated Press
Thursday, January 18, 2007; 9:34 PM

RICHMOND, Va. -- Episcopalian leaders on Thursday said they are done negotiating and plan to take legal action for the return of property held by 11 parishes that broke away because of the church's tolerance of gay clergy and relationships.

Bishop Peter Lee and the executive board of the Diocese of Virginia declared the land and buildings held by the churches "abandoned" and said they mean to go to court to recover or protect diocesan property.

Lee wrote Thursday that he had tried unsuccessfully to find ways to resolve the dispute without taking it to court.

"No longer am I convinced that such an outcome is possible, nor do I believe that such a move at this time is dishonorable," he wrote in a letter to the diocese.

The diocese and members of the breakaway Truro Church and The Falls Church _ the two most prominent and largest of the state's Episcopal parishes _ agreed in December to delay legal action over those two parishes' property, estimated to be worth $25 million, for 30 days. That agreement expired Wednesday.

Jim Pierobon, a member of Falls Church and a spokesman for the breakaway churches, said all 11 congregations are prepared for a court battle.

"We intend to protect our churches' property rights to the fullest extent of the law," he said.

Pierobon said church members have filed reports with court clerks, informing the state as required by civil law, of the congregations' decisions to leave the church.

Lee wrote Thursday that the diocese is attempting to block such action, since breakaway congregants appear to be believe filing the reports "gives them the right to Episcopal Church property."

The churches have voted since late last year to part ways with The Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. wing of the global Anglican Communion. They have said they will align with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, which was established by Nigeria's conservative Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola.

The Episcopal Church has been under pressure since the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay bishop, New Hampshire's V. Gene Robinson. The denomination has adopted a general acceptance of gays.

© 2007 The Associated Press