Our Anglican church in Virginia, The Falls Church, faces a hard hour this month. A Virginia court has ruled that buildings and funds we believe to be ours actually belong to the Episcopal Church. Our congregation of 4,000 must begin again, finding a new home and place of worship.
As the rector of the church since 1979, I believe I speak for all in saying that we leave without resentment or acrimony; we pray only the best for those who will follow us in our old and historic church, and that the transforming good news of Christ will always be proclaimed on this spot.
In 2006, The Falls Church and six sister congregations in Northern Virginia voted (overwhelmingly) to pull out of the Episcopal Church because, in our view, it had drifted so far from orthodox Christianity that we could not remain in good conscience.
Reasons for the division have been mainly theological, particularly focused on how we interpret the Bible, and what doctrines of the Christian faith are essential for leaders to maintain. The doctrinal divides have been widening for several decades, and in 2003 when a practicing homosexual was consecrated as Episcopal bishop, many realized that the divisions in the church were unresolvable.
We will stay in the Anglican Communion under the Archbishop of Canterbury, but through a different branch.
Following our decision to withdraw were a series of lawsuits over the ownership of the church property we believed to be ours: the original church dating back almost 300 years, the new sanctuary that seats 1,000 that was built in 1991, the house in which my wife and I have lived for 33 years, most of the funds in the church’s accounts, and so forth.
A trial court decided in our favor, but that decision was reversed on appeal. After a second trial, a Fairfax County judge has given us the final order to depart.
The lawsuit has been a huge distraction and expense for everyone — on both sides — over the past five years. It has drained funds that otherwise could have been put toward good works. But we have learned valuable lessons about the true nature of the church and about our mission. Of course, we knew that a church is its people, not its buildings, but we see that much more clearly now.
We will move on. It has taken a long lawsuit and several rulings for me to accept that this is for the best. It is possible still that our leadership will attempt another appeal. But we vacate this property in a few days.
The overwhelming scope of the ruling has caused me to conclude this is part of a larger plan.
The cost to us is huge. Locating available worship space and office space for a church our size is challenging. But we remain convicted about our decision to leave the Episcopal Church.
Do I have regrets? Yes, a few. I regret that so much ink has been spilled over a few social issues (important as they are), instead of on the deeper theological issue of how we understand and obey the will of God. And I wish we could have communicated more successfully that none of us is without sin. We all need the Savior.
Some good things have also happened. Since 2006, we have helped fund, staff and populate independent “daughter” churches in Alexandria, Arlington, Vienna and beyond. In our parent church, we continue to have 2,500 people in worship and fellowship each Sunday.
God also has given us opportunities to serve our local community. We recently entered into a partnership to expand a ministry in the Baileys Crossroads area, with Columbia Baptist Church and St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. Together we minister to the poor and the immigrants among us in the Culmore Clinic. People now have a safe place to ask for and receive prayer, even as they are being treated medically.
We’ve been humbled by an outpouring of encouragement and offers of assistance, including furnishings and building space from Presbyterians, Baptists, Catholics and other friends.
Many details for our path forward remain unclear, and we know the adventure ahead is going to be challenging. But, we move forward with an invigorated feeling of purpose.
In a sense, this will be like starting all over again. There is a teaching in the New Testament: When you are at your weakest you actually are at your strongest. In weakness we are forced to trust in God. We know that where God leads us is a good place.
The greatest of all outcomes for us at The Falls Church would be if all of us were transformed through this experience, changed into Christ’s likeness. For to be like Him is the greatest of all possible outcomes.
Yates has been rector of The Falls Church since 1979.