The Episcopal Church should be restored as the owner of several historic churches in Virginia, a judge has ruled, years after the denomination was essentially evicted by local congregations dismayed with Episcopal leadership's liberal theology.
In a 113-page ruling issued Tuesday night, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows reversed a ruling he made in 2008 giving custody to the conservative congregations. The Virginia Supreme Court overturned that ruling and ordered a new trial.
At issue is ownership of seven Virginia churches, including two prominent, historic congregations that trace their roots to George Washington: Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church, for which the city of Falls Church is named.
The disputes within the Episcopal Church have raged openly since 2003, when the denomination consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The issues have since broadened to a range of theological issues, including fundamental interpretations of Scripture.
The lawsuit itself has been winding its way through the courts since 2007, shortly after Truro and The Falls Church voted overwhelmingly in December 2006 to break away from The Episcopal Church and align with more conservative groups within the Anglican church.
The Episcopal Church, with about 2 million members, is a U.S. affiliate of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide. Many of the international branches in the Anglican church, especially those in Africa, take more conservative views and have supported congregations in the U.S. that have broken away from The Episcopal Church.
Bellows' initial ruling hinged on interpretation of a unique law in Virginia dating to the Civil War era governing ownership of churches whose congregations and denominations were split over the issue of slavery. But the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the law did not apply to this dispute, and ordered Bellows to settle the issue on more mundane issues of contract and real estate law.
Henry Burt, secretary for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, said Bellows' ruling Tuesday was one of several across the nation in recent months where similar disputes have been settled in favor of The Episcopal Church. Last year, state supreme courts in Connecticut and Georgia ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church. Last month, Episcopalians in Savannah moved back into the historic Christ Church in Savannah for the first time since 2007 after a breakaway conservative congregation vacated the building in light of the court ruling.
It is unlikely, though, that the Episcopalians in Virginia will be able to return to their churches in the immediate future. The judge still has to construct a final order to put Tuesday's ruling into effect, which will be complicated: It involves 42 separate deeds, as well as sorting out various personal property within the church. The one minor victory Bellows gave to the conservative congregations was that they could keep any donations and personal property associated with the churches that they acquired since the split.
And if the Anglican churches appeal, Bellows could conceivably stay his order from taking effect while the appeal goes forward. Jim Oakes, a spokesman for the seven congregations, said it's too early to say whether the congregations will appeal.
If Bellows' ruling stands, Burt said the Episcopal Church will welcome back all congregants, including those who voted to break away.
"The tagline of the church for the last 30 years has been `The Episcopal Church Welcomes You,' and that has never been more true than it is today," Burt said.
Oakes, though, said he would be very surprised if congregants chose to return to Episcopal worship. While the congregations have a great affinity for their houses of worship, he said the underlying theological fracture is too severe.
"We didn't separate over a dispute about the color of the draperies," he said. "These are very serious issues."
The years-long litigation has been expensive for all involved. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has lost congregations that collectively contributed $10.4 million directly to the diocese in the 20-year period before the dispute erupted.
And the breakaway congregations have spent millions of dollars in legal fees. Warren Thrasher, executive director at Truro, said the 1,200 members of that church alone have spent roughly $2 million on legal bills, raised through a legal defense fund kept separate from the rest of the church's ministry.
Since the litigation was filed in 2007, several smaller breakaway congregations reached settlements with the diocese.
The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, Shannon Johnston, said that "while we are grateful for the decision in our favor, we remain mindful of the toll this litigation has taken on all parties involved, and we continue to pray for all affected by the litigation."
The rector at The Falls Church _ John Yates, who was defrocked by The Episcopal Church but is recognized as a minister by the conservative Anglican congregations _ said in a statement that "the core issue for us is not physical property, but theological and moral truth and the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world."