Va. Ruling Bolsters Breakaway Parishes

Scott Callender, 11, carries a cross at the beginning of mass at Falls Church Presbyterian Church.
Scott Callender, 11, carries a cross at the beginning of mass at Falls Church Presbyterian Church. (Sarah L Voisin - The Washington Post)

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Five years after the consecration of an openly gay bishop, conservatives who have left the Episcopal Church have organized into a cohesive movement, creating a de facto, if small, separate Anglican church in the United States.

This month, the Diocese of Pittsburgh became the second diocese, after San Joaquin, Calif., late last year, to decide to leave the 2.2 million-member national Episcopal church. The dioceses of Quincy, Ill., and Fort Worth will vote next month. Those moves followed 15 Virginia parishes -- including the large and well-known Truro Church and The Falls Church -- that over the past two years have left their diocese because they view it as too liberal.

The conservatives have been bolstered by the breakaway churches' legal victories in Virginia. Yesterday, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled Truro Church could retain ownership of land sought by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

Bellows has ruled consistently against the diocese in the year-long trial, and both sides agree that the bulk of property will go with the conservatives unless his rulings are overturned. The diocese has vowed to appeal, arguing that it is unconstitutional for the government to interfere with "the polity and internal affairs" of any church, said the church's attorney, Brad Davenport.

The breakaway congregations, like dozens of others across the country, have voted to temporarily place themselves under more conservative branches of the Anglican Communion, mostly in Africa. After decades of being tiny, separate splinter groups, they have begun working together, have held their first summits with their overseas allies and are seeking recognition as their own U.S. church. They now comprise more than 580 congregations made up of more than 100,000 people, said Peter Frank, a spokesman for the new umbrella group, called Common Cause Partnership.

They say the Episcopal leadership defines Scripture on modern rather than eternal standards, and they take exception to the ordination of female clergy, the full acceptance of gays and lesbians and what they see as reduced importance in the role of Jesus for a believer's redemption. They are not alone in American Protestantism. Like-minded Presbyterians and Methodists are leaving their denominations in what church-state expert Robert Tuttle says is the largest wave of congregation withdrawals in more than 30 years.

"A lot of people's willingness to take a step away from the Episcopal Church depends on the existence of a place to go," said Steffen Johnson, an attorney who attends The Falls Church and is also co-counsel for the breakaway churches. "Now people who are leaving and people who have left can say, 'Let's join together.' It builds momentum."

The Episcopal Church and its allies, however, see the movement as simply a rush of organizing, not something that will divide a global denomination that has for centuries made space for a wide range of theological viewpoints. Many don't believe the Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest Christian body, will recognize a second U.S. church and predict that as Africans become more powerful in the communion, more diversity of opinion on such issues as sexuality will become evident there.

"I don't see a great exodus; I don't see it as being a big victory," said historian and Episcopalian Diana Butler Bass. "I think it's a long continuing fight."

Indeed, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori told a group in Columbus, Ohio, last week that most of the people who wanted to separate have done so. "I think we're well past the worst of the crisis," she told the Columbus Dispatch.

But some church historians disagree.

"We have a problem that won't be solved until a generation or two passes from the scene," said the Rev. Robert Prichard, who teaches at the Virginia Theological Seminary. "Too many people are staked in being too unfriendly."

The national church has fought back hard against the breakaway churches, hoping to reclaim real estate for its loyalists. While they wait for final decisions in cases that involve dozens of congregations across the country, more theologically liberal members who once belonged to the dissident parishes meet in basements, public libraries and sanctuary halls of other churches.

Among them is Sandy Kirkpatrick, senior warden at St. Stephen's Episcopal, a 30-person congregation that meets at the Methodist church in the tiny Northern Neck town of Heathsville, waiting for the appeals to run themselves out. She said her side has "maintained the moral high ground. I think there is a general sense that we've been done wrong."

Although conservatives have had victories in the recent Virginia splits, the legal results nationally have been more mixed. Courts have been divided on whether parishioners can keep church property when they break away, Tuttle said.

The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, which had its start with the Church of England. A decade ago, there were few Anglican congregations in the United States that were formally recognized by any other Anglican branches around the world.

Although that's a small number compared with the Episcopal Church's members, Frank and others said it represents a turning point. They said it shows that like-minded people are organizing and unifying for the first time.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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