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F.C. Episcopal Non-Defectors Gather Off-Site; Bishop May Defrock Yates

Says Defectors ‘Abandoned’ the Faith, Members

In yet another strongly-worded statement, the Episcopal Church’s Bishop of Virginia issued a letter this week that he has “inhibited,” or “placed under ecclesiastical censure,” 21 clergy that voted with others among 11 churches in the state to defect from the denomination last month. The move is a step toward defrocking, and among others, it is directed against the Rev. John Yates, rector of the Falls Church Episcopal Church. 

Yates led a December vote of over 1,200 of the reported 2,800 members of the Falls Church Episcopal to leave the Episcopal Church denomination and align with an association under the direction of the Anglican Arch Bishop of Nigeria. The arch-conservative defectors cited their convictions about Biblical inerrancy and opposition to homosexuality and female priests among their motives.

Meanwhile, members of the Falls Church Episcopal who did not vote to leave the denomination have begun holding worship services apart from what some call “the Nigerians.” The last two weeks, these were being held in the home of Bill Fetsch, a former member of the church’s vestry who resigned after the vote. Last Sunday, this group, led by a temporary rector assigned by the Bishop of Virginia to head their worship, elected its own vestry.

This Sunday, its services will be held in a meeting hall at the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, 225 E. Broad St., Falls Church at 11:15 a.m. The pastor of that church, the Rev. Thomas Schmid, invited the group to meet there, just around the corner from the historic Falls Church Episcopal site. “We invite any and all who share our vision to attend,” Fetsch told the News-Press.

Attempts to arrange for the group to worship at the Falls Church Episcopal site were apparently cut off abruptly by the bishop’s latest action.

Bishop Peter James Lee’s action Monday to “inhibit” Yates and other clergy, he said, came in response to a determination reached unanimously by the Episcopal Church’s Virginia diocese standing committee last weekend that the clergy in question “have openly renounced the doctrine, discipline or worship of the Episcopal Church and, therefore, have abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church.”

Under church rules, he said, “the clergy have six months to reverse their decision to abandon the church before they are removed from the Episcopal ministry.” In the meantime, “inhibited” clergy are removed as members of the annual council of the diocese. Lee also stated that he has rescinded the licenses granted six other clergy from other Episcopal diocese that had been functioning in Virginia.

Lee cited as “further evidence of their decision to abandon the Episcopal Church and the diocese, the majority membership of the 15 churches have filed civil actions, styled as “reports,” with the respective circuit courts in an effort to transfer ownership of the affected properties.”
But, he added, “The diocese has filed responses denying any transfer of property, citing both Virginia law and the canons of the Episcopal Church. The majority membership of the 15 churches voluntarily chose to sever their ties with the diocese and, in so doing, they abandoned the property for the purposes for which it was set aside, namely the mission of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia.”

The Richmond-based bishop and the leadership of the Virginia diocese began asserting this tough stand against the actions and wishes of the defectors last Thursday, immediately upon the expiration of a 30-day “standstill” period after the churches’ majorities voted the defect in early December.

A toughly-worded letter then, the Bishop made it clear he would not abandon the ministry of the Episcopal Church to all who did not chose to leave it in December.

In Falls Church, this has meant that Episcopal Church members who did not vote to defect have begun organized worship in the home of Fetsch, a former member of the church’s vestry, and Robin Fetsch,  led by a rector supplied by the Bishop Lee. The former member of the church’s leading body of lay persons resigned over the vote last month.

Last weekend, the News-Press learned, after the second weekend of services in the home led by the Rev. Michael Pipkin, who is a chaplain at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, the assembled members elected its own vestry board and they hope the word gets out to more who did not walk away from the Episcopal Church with the defectors.

In fact, that could add up to more than half the reported 2,800 members of the church. Just over 1,200 actually cast votes to defect in December.

A source told the News-Press that when challenged why such a small percentage of the total church membership participated in the vote, the Rev. Yates claimed that in order to be “true to the letter of the law” in the definition of a church member, a great deal of scrutiny was applied to the church’s rolls, and only those who passed muster as bona fide members without question were permitted to vote.

This has been a significant bone of contention between the two groups, those that defected and those that did not.

A spokesman for the defectors, Jim Pierobon, was reported in yesterday’s Washington Times asserting that the number of church members who did not defect was limited to the 127 parishioners who formally voted against the move.

He is quoted saying Bishop Lee’s move Monday to “inhibit” Yates and others precluded any arrangement whereby his group would agree to having the non-defectors utilize the Falls Church Episcopal sanctuary. “Peter Lee has now cut off our ability to accommodate those whom he says need our pastoral care,” Pierobon is reported saying.

Otherwise, the reaction of spokesmen for the defectors to the last week’s developments has been one of “disappointment.”

In a “Parish Update” to his followers issued last Friday, Yates said that he was “saddened greatly” by the report of church members who did not vote to leave the Episcopal Church now gathering in a former vestryman’s home. As to that group’s move to form a new vestry, he wrote, “I pray that none of our church family will be taken in by such efforts.”

In a joint statement with a colleague from the Truro Episcopal Church from Fairfax issues Friday, Tom Wilson, the senior warder of the Falls Church, called Bishop Lee’s statement “divisive rhetoric,” and urged him “to stand down from making any more threats.” He added, referring to earlier reconciliation efforts, “Bishop Lee’s memory seems oddly selective and while that grieves me deeply, I still have hope that he will come to his senses.”

However, Bishop Lee has stated that he’s acted on the basis of unanimous votes of both the diocese’s executive committee and its standing committee, its two key authoritative bodies.

In his letter to the diocese last Thursday, Bishop Lee said actions to claim control of the property of all the churches in question was designed “to preserve the sacred mission entrusted to us by previous generations for the future of the church,” adding, “Because we believe that God’s promises to his people continue to be reliable, we will seek the return of the churches of the Diocese of Virginia that are occupied by dissidents.”

He said the defectors “left remaining Episcopal congregations in those places without vestries, without clergy and without their churches, whether the remaining congregations numbered one or 100,” calling that a “spiritual abandonment” that is “perhaps the greatest offense for which there is no redress under our tradition.”

He said that Episcopalians who did not vote to defect are gathering outside their property in other locations in most other locations, as they are in Falls Church.

“I have tried to find a way forward in our dispute over property that would keep us from having to resort to civil courts. No longer am I convinced that such an outcome is possible, nor do I believe that such a move at this time is dishonorable,” he wrote. He added that he’d received from attorneys for the dissidents “a letter threatening action against me and any other diocesan officials who ‘set foot on’ or ‘trespass’ on Episcopal Church property.

Attorneys for the dissidents, he added, “filed reports with the clerks of the courts in their jurisdictions under a statute in the Code of Virginia that they think gives them the right to Episcopal Church property. We have intervened in that action.”

Persons seeking more information about the efforts and gatherings of Falls Church Episcopal parishioners who did not vote to defect can contact Fetsch at (703) 919-9464.

 

E-mail the author at nfbenton@fcnp.com.

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