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Anglican parish in Va. settles property dispute with Episcopalians

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2011; 11:00 PM

A tiny, 133-year-old conservative Anglican parish near Leesburg has agreed to settle its part of a bitter, costly land dispute with the Episcopal Church. The case drew national attention in 2006 when a cluster of like-minded parishes in Virginia voted to leave the denomination over disputes about scripture and sexuality.

The Church of Our Saviour, Oatlands, was one of nine congregations in Northern Virginia that, until it voted Sunday to settle, was locked in litigation over the nine church properties, which include the large Truro Church in Fairfax City and the Falls Church in Falls Church. Legal fees on all sides are believed to total more than $12 million.

The cases are being watched closely by Episcopalians - the American wing of Anglicanism - and other religious denominations that have seen splits over whether women or gays and lesbians can be clergy and whether Christianity is the sole path to God.

The Virginia cases focus on local property laws and won't affect disputes around the country. But because of the prominence of the parishes here - and the conservative leaders involved - the outcomes have symbolic heft.

The conservatives who broke away argue it was the Episcopal Church that "left" the Anglican faith by accepting gay clergy and leaders who see scripture as metaphor.

The Oatlands deal requires the congregation to give up its claim to the church building, which dates to 1878. The congregation will get an inexpensive lease for five years with the diocese but is forbidden from affiliating with breakaway groups while still using the building.

It wasn't clear Sunday whether settlements with other congregations would follow.

Henry Burt, spokesman for the Episcopal diocese, said the church is "in negotiations with other congregations, and we hope some will also go this way."

Jim Oakes, a spokesman for the umbrella group for Virginia's breakaway conservative congregations, said he didn't believe any of the other churches were in talks with the Episcopal diocese.

"We believe our property is an integral part of our mission, and we don't maintain churches are country clubs. They host a huge number of missions that are core to who we are," he said.

The Rev. Elijah White, longtime rector of Church of Our Saviour, said the parish had spent $400,000 in the dispute over the property, which he said is worth $314,000.

The congregation, which has 120 members, will immediately begin looking for a new place to worship, he said.

"I feel better than I have in years because we've been tied up in this litigation," he said. "It's a total distraction from real Christian ministry."

Two legal issues have gone to court in the complex land dispute. The Episcopal Church won on one front last year. The next phase begins April 25 in Fairfax Circuit Court.

"It is truly heartening for us to come to an agreement," the Right Rev. Shannon Johnston, Episcopal bishop of Virginia, said in a statement. The cases, he said, are about "ensuring that the mission of the Episcopal Church continues in churches and communities across Virginia."

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