(Part 2 of a series following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last week to let stand the lower court decision that the property of the historic Falls Church in Northern Virginia belonged to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and not an arch-conservative pack of defectors from that church who voted to leave it in December 2006, but subsequently occupied the property for five and a half years. For part one, click here.)
The City of Falls Church, Virginia, both is and isn’t a small, sleepy residential enclave inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway, seven miles from the White House. It used to be truly “country,” a getaway destination that residents of the capital could ride to on weekends and relax under large shade trees. But in recent years, the press of urbanization crept in, swelling the schools and replacing tree shade with the multistory building type.
But always, since the 1730s in this region rich with early American colonial history, the center of small Falls Church has been The Falls Church. Built in 1735 as an outpost of the Anglican church in Alexandria where George Washington was a vestryman, it is a small box-like structure whose exterior has gone unchanged for going on 300 years. It has been a functioning church the entire time, named for its proximity to the Great Falls on the Potomac. With the American Revolution, its ownership remained with its Alexandria mother church as it transitioned from Anglican to Episcopalian. A small graveyard on its heavily-shaded perimeter is the final resting place of persons dating back to its founding. During the Civil War it was held at different times by both Union and Confederate forces pushing back and forth in the area, and was used as a hospital.
The grounds are modestly imposing, even as a portion of them were used for the construction in the 1990s of a large sanctuary adjacent the original building.
The church provided an ideal social and spiritual center for its surrounding community, which after World War II incorporated into an independent city so it could develop its own progressive school system, now nationally renowned for its excellence. It was the first in Virginia to integrate after the Brown Vs. Board of Education decision in 1954.
A founder of that school system was a leading member of The Falls Church since she moved to the area in 1941. Upon her passing at age 100 last year, a new school building in the City was named for her. The longtime superintendent of that school system was also a member of the church.
But the positive symbiosis between this venerable church and the community around it was sharply disrupted in the mid-1980s when it fell into the hands of new leadership that sent it in a very different direction. A young rector from North Carolina started shaping it into something unlike almost any other Episcopal church in the U.S.
It is not too simple to consider it an aspect of “the Reagan revolution.” Among other things, the shift happened in the context of the radical neo-conservative political thrust sweeping the nearby nation’s capital. New parishioners who shared the rector’s arch-conservative views began flooding into the church from outside its community.
In 1991 I founded a weekly newspaper for the City of Falls Church. In almost no time it began chronicling the church’s new form of harsh interventions into the community around it. A zealous youth minister spoke at a funeral for a family life teacher at the local high school, a very generous and accepting soul enormously popular and beloved by all the students, and he used the occasion to rail against her tolerance of homosexuality.
Next, the student editorial board of the high school paper voted to accept an ad from a national pro-gay tolerance group and the church put up such a fuss that the faculty adviser to the school paper was almost fired, and was on the receiving end of ferocious hate mail for months.
A special community-wide meeting was called at City Hall, and some courageous students defended the editorial board decision, as did my newspaper. It was the first time I went head-to-head with the church. But not the last.
(To be continued)