A 42-page ruling issued by the Virginia Supreme Court last Thursday upheld the ruling of the Fairfax Circuit Court that conveyed the property of the historic Falls Church in downtown Falls Church to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and its congregation of Episcopalians who did not defect from that church in 2006.
The Supreme Court decision also remanded back to the lower court a decision about some $300,000 in funds raised by the breakaway group between its formal split and the court’s ruling in 2012.
The Supreme Court’s conclusion included the following quote: “We will affirm the trial court’s order requiring that The Falls Church convey the property to TEC and the Diocese. With regard to the disposition of personal property acquired by The Falls Church after the vote to disaffiliate, we will reverse the judgment of the trial court and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
The opinion was authored by Supreme Court Judge Cleo E. Powell, with a concurring opinion by Judge McClanahan.
“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,” the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia, said in a statement issued following the ruling. “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.”
In a letter to his breakaway Anglican parishioners about the ruling, the Rev. John Yates said, “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.” He stated, “We have followed the course that we prayerfully believed was right.”
Yates, who came to the Falls Church as its rector in the late 1980s, engineered the movement for a large portion of his congregation to defect from the Episcopal Church of America in 2006, largely in reaction against a vote by the national church’s bishops in 2003 to elevate an openly-gay priest to standing as a bishop.
Yates had led an aggressive growth effort at the historic church, including the construction of a new worship center and the purchase of an adjacent property for a new “parish life” center (that was never built). He stubbornly held onto the disputed property for his breakaway congregation for five years before last year’s ruling. Meanwhile, congregants who did not follow Yates were relegated to continuing to worship across the street as guests of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church.
The words this week were much more cheerful than Yates’ that came from the Rev. John Ohmer, rector of those continuing Falls Church Episcopalians who now have confidently reclaimed the historic church property.
The Rev. Ohmer stated in an email to the News-Press:
“The unanimous decision by the Virginia Supreme Court is good news not only for The Falls Church Episcopal, but for The Diocese of Virginia and The Episcopal Church in general, because it cements, legally, the fact that while individuals – even large numbers of individuals – are of course perfectly free to leave the Episcopal church, they are not free, legally, to claim Episcopal church property as their own. And it’s a relief to know that buildings and properties acquired by and improved upon by several generations of previous Episcopalians will continue to be available for this and future generations of Episcopalians.
“I’m sorry it took so long and cost so much money to get to this point; it was all so unnecessary: I have good friends and colleagues who share all the frustrations and have all the same disagreements with the Episcopal Church as those who chose to break away, but who’ve found a way to stay within the Episcopal Church.
“Speaking at least for The Falls Church Episcopal, we really mean it when we say ‘the Episcopal Church welcomes you’ – we mean absolutely everyone: gay or straight, conservative or liberal, Democrat or Republican, young or old, rich or poor, divorced, married, single, black, white, Latino, Asian, full-of-faith or full-of-doubts, lifelong Christian or never having stepped foot in a church in your life. It doesn’t make any difference because we don’t define ourselves by our differences – we define ourselves by what we have in common – and that’s our faith in God, love for one another, and service to the community.
“So while the court’s ruling is good news, even better news is that, I hope, both sides of this dispute can now finally put a long legal dispute behind them/us, and everyone (I hope) can focus all of our energies on our day-to-day ministries.”