A Virginia judge has sided with the Episcopal church in its dispute with breakaway members of a tiny congregation near Roanoke over ownership of the group's historic sanctuary.
Roanoke Circuit Court Judge L. L. Koontz Jr., in a decision last Friday that was made public yesterday, ruled that the 132-year-old Ascension Church property in rural Amherst, Va., must be returned to the control of the Episcopal diocese of southwestern Virginia.
Members of the church voted 59 to 44 last May to break away from the diocese in a dispute over women priests and revision of the Book of Common Prayer. A minority joined with diocese officials in suing to retain ownership of the property.
A spokesman for the majority, who have joined other breakaway congregations in a body now known as the Anglican Catholic Church, said yesterday the Amherst case is being watched carefully by other disaffected Episcopal congregations considering withdrawal from the church.
"I know 15 parishes in Virginia waiting for the outcome of this case to see which way they want to go," the spokesman said.
The dispute sharply polarized the little town of Amherst, straining life-long friendships in the community of 1,000. Church members were so deeply enmeshed in the town's oficialdom that an outside judge -- Koontz, who is a Presbyterian -- was brought in to try the case.
Strother Smith of nearby Abingdon, attorney for the Anglican majority at Amherst and also a lay leader in the Anglican Catholic Church, said yesterday that he would appeal the decision all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Smith acknowledged that some will be discouraged from splitting from the Episcopal Church by Judge Koontz's decision. "Some, who are not as fully convinced as others, will say, "If we can't take our property with us, we'll just grin and bear it' and stay," he said.
Yesterday's decision is the second victory for the southwestern Virginia diocese in reclaiming property which dissidents tried to take out of the denomination. In a similar case earlier this year in Clifton Forge, in the far western part of the state, courts ruled that the local parish property must stay with the denomination.