“We are a parish. We are self-sustaining. We won’t ever quit.” So said Bill Fetsch, senior warden of Falls Church’s “Continuing Episcopalians,” a group of more than 100 who have been banned since December 2006 by defectors from access to their historic church property.
Fetsch, in these comments to the News-Press Tuesday, was responding to the ruling last week by Judge Randy Bellows of the Fairfax Circuit Court declaring the 1867 Virginia “division statute,” allowing breakaway groups within a congregation to claim church property, to be constitutional.
While the ruling is not the final word on which group will ultimately get rights to the historic property, the defectors led by Rector John Yates who have occupied the property while realigning with the arch-conservative Bishop Akinola of Nigeria, or those in the congregation who voted not to defect and remain aligned with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
In October, Judge Bellows will review the third of three steps in the case, concerning the applicability of any language in deeds, or the local congregation’s acceptance of the so-called Davies Canon in the Episcopal Church’s contractual laws which states that all church property shall be owned by the larger denomination.
In that phase, the “Continuing Episcopalians” will also present evidence concerning alleged irregularities in the conduct of the December 2006 vote, when a large majority of the Falls Church congregation followed Yates’ lead and voted to defect. There are reportedly questions, among other things, about who was and who was not allowed to vote.
Beyond this October, observers note that the case could be appealed to the State Supreme Court, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. They note that it should have come as no surprise that a local Circuit Court judge would not likely challenge the constitutionality of a long-standing state statute.
The case is considered critical not only in the Falls Church situation, or pertaining to the 11 Virginia congregations who have left the Episcopal Church, but for every major, mainstream Protestant denomination where the potential for similar rightwing-led defections exist. The Falls Church defection was precipitated in opposition to the Episcopal Church’s elevation of the Rev. Eugene Robinson, an openly-gay clergyman, to standing as a bishop of the church in 2003.
But now, the News-Press has learned, there is a strong discussion going on among the “continuing Episcopalians” in Falls Church between those who wish for a reconciliation with the defectors and those who are resolved to stand strongly for the battle being waged by the larger Episcopalian denomination.
Fetsch said it was “fortuitous” that Judge Bellows latest ruling came just prior to a retreat among his fellow “Continuing Episcopalian” vestry leaders last weekend. “We decided that this matter was going to be a marathon, not a sprint and that the worst thing would be to lose faith and ignore the benefits of hanging together as a congregation.”
But he conceded that last week’s court ruling had the effect of “scratching a scab off an old wound.” For many, he said, “old emotions began to flow again, realizing that, in being denied access to our historic church site, we’ve been deprived of an important part of our lives.”
Meantime, the Rev. Michael Pitkin, the Diocese-appointed pastor to the Falls Church “Continuing Episcopalians,” pointed to a meeting of defectors from the Anglican Communion worldwide, being held in Jerusalem this week. At it, Bishop Akinoka was quoted as saying that efforts since 1997 aimed at “avoiding this crisis” have been without success. “And there you have it,” Pitkin wrote in a blog this week, this schism is “what they’ve been working toward and hoping for for the last 11 years.”