The Virginia Supreme Court last week affirmed the finding of a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge in the case of The Falls Church, potentially ending a six-year battle over the church’s ownership.
Eleven churches broke away from the Episcopal Church in early 2007 to join a more conservative Anglican Church under the auspices of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. The Angican churches, however, kept the Episcopal Church properties.
Of the original 11 congregations, only The Falls Church — which originally was founded in 1732 and predates the establishment of the Episcopal church in America—appealed a 2012 decision by Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows stating the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia had “a contractual and proprietary interest” in each of the properties subject to the litigation.
Bellows ordered all the properties be returned back to the Episcopal Diocese, and all but the Falls Church complied without an appeal.
On April 18, the Virginia Supreme Court — led by an opinion issued by Justice Cleo E. Powell — ruled on that appeal, saying The Falls Church did in fact need to be permanently returned to the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia,
“We are grateful that the Supreme Court of Virginia has once again affirmed the right of Episcopalians to worship in their spiritual home at The Falls Church Episcopal,” said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Episcopal Bishop of Virginia. “This decision ensures that Episcopalians will have a home for years to come in Falls Church and frees all of us, on both sides of this issue, to preach the Gospel and teach the faith unencumbered by this dispute.”
The Falls Church Anglican, while dismayed by the ruling, remained positive in its reaction.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we as a church are much stronger as a result of the trials that we have undergone,” said the Rev. John Yates, the church’s rector who will now seek to find a permanent home for his 3,000-member parish.
Although it lost the church property, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the Anglican congregation is in fact entitled to a portion of a contested amount of church coffer money totaling nearly $3 million.
Yates did not indicate whether any further appeals will be pursued, saying only in a statement that “The court’s decision reverses the trial court’s ruling as to a part of our church’s funds, and sends the case back to the trial court for further proceedings regarding that point. But the Court has affirmed the trial court’s decision as to our church’s real property and much of the personal property, meaning that our lands, building, and much of our money have not been returned to us.”
Truro Anglican Church in Fairfax, one of the original 11 breakaway churches, offered its condolences to The Falls Church Anglicans upon hearing news of the Virginia Supreme Court decision.
“The Truro vestry wishes to express its shared sense of loss over the ruling of the Supreme Court of Virginia relating to the disposition of your beloved parish buildings,” church leaders said in a letter to The Falls Church congregation. “It is a matter of grief for us that the stewardship of these historic structures, which have given spiritual shelter and provided the place for Christian ministry and community over more than two centuries, have now passed, finally, from the hands who have cared for them with such loving faithfulness for so long.”
Both the Episcopals and the Anglicans reportedly spent nearly $4 million in legal fees during six years, leaving many members on both sides of the issue seeking closure in the case.
“It’s always worrisome when there’s trouble in God’s house,” said L. Steven Emmert, past chairman of the Virginia State Bar Appellate Practice Committee, who has maintained a website chronicling the litigation. “The real hero of this case is probably Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows, who sat through a 22-day trial last year after he had previously been reversed by the Supreme Court, and issued a 113-page letter opinion,” Emmert said. “The fact that his many rulings therein were almost entirely affirmed last week is remarkable.”