The Virginia Supreme Court in Richmond yesterday heard the oral arguments of an appeal by the breakaway Falls Church Anglicans, seeking to reverse a January 2012 ruling by the Fairfax Circuit Court returning the property of the historic Falls Church in downtown City of Falls Church to the Episcopal Church.
The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Cynthia D. Kinser, also heard arguments from attorneys representing the national Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Falls Church Episcopal Church.
A final decision from the Supreme Court is expected by the end of April.
The breakaway congregation, which remains under the leadership of the Rev. John Yates and has been worshiping at different locations in Northern Virginia since being forced to vacate the historic church a year ago, was joined in its appeal by an amicus brief from Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli which supported the Anglicans on one aspect of their appeal, the disposition of financial contributions made to them while they occupied the historic church.
The breakaway congregation, composed of a majority of members of the Falls Church, voted to split from the national Episcopal Church in December 2006 but continued to occupy the historic church location until last May, following in the January 2012 court decision. Meanwhile, a portion of the church’s original membership determined to continue association with the national Episcopal Church and worshiped across the street at the fellowship hall of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church until last May, when they reclaimed the historic campus.
The split was due, in part, to the unhappiness of breakaway congregants with the national Episcopal Church bishops’ vote in Nov. 2003 to elevate the openly-gay Rev. Gene Robinson to standing as a bishop.
Present at today’s Supreme Court hearing were the Rev. John Ohmer and the Rev. Cathy Tibbets of the continuing Falls Church Episcopalian congregation, and Yates was present for the breakaway Anglicans. On the Anglican web site, Yates wrote, “We do know that we have a Great Advocate in Christ, that He is for us.”
Two of the seven Supreme Court judges recused themselves from the case for potential conflict of interest reasons, and they were replaced for the case, which was over in less than two hours.
Each side had 20 minutes to make its case, and following that came questions and answers. The Episcopal Church was backed in the case by an amicus brief filed on behalf of three national Protestant denominations, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church.
In a statement released on Tuesday by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, it was stated, “While we are heartened to have reached amicable agreements with the congregations previously involved in this dispute, it is unfortunate that we must continue in litigation over this final matter. However, we remain confident in our position and hope that this hearing is another step toward retaining Episcopal properties for the mission of the church.”
The breakaway Anglican group from Falls Church is the only breakaway group among 11 in Virginia to appeal the January 2012 ruling.
The bottom lines of the arguments dealt with issues surrounding the claims to ownership of the historic church property.
The polity of the Episcopal Church has always been that individuals are free to leave at any time, but that does not apply to congregations, the Rev. Ohmer told the News-Press following yesterday’s hearing.
The breakaway Anglicans’ argument was that their Anglican tradition predates the Episcopal Church, even if the Anglican Church in North America changed into the Episcopal Church after the American revolution.
The Episcopalian case is that everyone has been worshiping as Episcopalians from shortly after the American revolution until 2006, and that all the contributions to the church during that interim were to the ministry and mission of the Episcopal Church.
Recapitulating that argument, Ohmer said, “Why should people who happen to be living now claim for themselves the contributions of hundreds of years to the Episcopal Church?”
Ohmer said the Supreme Court “had done its homework and was well versed on the case, asking informed and fair questions.”