Monday, December 18, 2006

Two Va. Congregations Split From Episcopalian Church

Two Va. Congregations Split From Episcopalian Church

By Bill Turque and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, December 18, 2006; A01

At least six Virginia Episcopal parishes, opposed to the consecration
of a gay bishop and the blessing of same-sex unions, have voted
overwhelmingly to break from the U.S. church in a dramatic
demonstration of widening rifts within the denomination.

Two of the congregations are among the state's largest and most
historic: Truro Church in Fairfax City and The Falls Church in Falls
Church, which have roots in the 1700s. Their leaders have been in the
vanguard of a national effort to establish a conservative alternative
to the Episcopal Church, the U.S. wing of the 77 million-member
worldwide Anglican Communion.

The result of the week-long vote, announced yesterday, sets up the
possibility of a lengthy ecclesiastical and legal battle for property
worth tens of millions of dollars. Buildings and land at Truro and The
Falls Church alone are valued at about $25 million, according to
Fairfax County records.

The votes are fresh evidence of an increasingly bitter split within
the U.S. Episcopal Church. Seven of its 111 dioceses have rejected the
authority of Presiding U.S. Bishop Katharine Jefforts Schori,
installed in July as the first woman to head an Anglican church.
Schori supports V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man elected Bishop of
New Hampshire in 2003.

"I grew up in the Episcopal Church. I hope I don't cry when I talk
about this," said a shaken Katrina Wagner, 37, an accountant and
member of Truro's vestry, after the congregation's vote was announced.
"But the issue is, are we going to follow Scripture?"

Bishop Peter James Lee of the Diocese of Virginia said yesterday in a
statement that he was "saddened" by the churches' decision, but that
he would not yield in seeking to retain ownership of the parishes'
land and buildings. The two congregations voted not only to sever ties
with the U.S. church but also for a resolution saying that they should
keep the property.

"As stewards of this historic trust, we fully intend to assert the
Church's canonical and legal rights over these properties," said Lee,
who is scheduled to meet today with the Executive Board and Standing
Committee of the Diocese to discuss the situation.

Truro and the Falls Church, with a combined membership of more than
3,000, will form the core of what is envisioned as a new Fairfax-based
mission of the conservative Episcopal Church of Nigeria. The head of
the Nigerian church, Archbishop Peter Akinola, has voiced support for
a pending law in that country that includes prison sentences for gay
sexual activity.

Rev. Martyn Minns of Truro Church, who is missionary bishop of the
splinter group known as CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North
America), said that while the dissident Virginia churches believe that
homosexuality is banned by Scripture, they do not support
criminalization of gay sex.

Akinola's spokesman and his advocates have said he does not advocate
aggressively pursuing the jailing of homosexuals. His advocates say he
is trying to navigate an explosive cultural situation in Nigeria and
appease Muslim leaders.

The other Virginia congregations that announced votes to leave the
U.S. church are St. Stephens in Heathsville, St. Margarets Church in
Woodbridge, Potomac Falls Episcopal Church in Sterling and Church of
the Word in Gainesville. Two other churches participating in the vote,
Church of the Apostles in Fairfax and St. Paul's in Haymarket, are
expected to release results today. Last week, members of All Saints'
Episcopal Church in Dale City announced a vote to separate.

In all, the eight voting parishes represent about 5 percent of the
90,000-member Virginia diocese.

The defections are likely to continue. Two other small Northern
Virginia churches, Our Saviour Episcopal in Oatlands and Church of the
Epiphany in Herndon, are expected to vote on separation early next

Minns said he expects about 20 parishes nationwide to join CANA by year's end.

A packed church of nearly 1,000 Truro congregants sat in rapt silence
at the end of the 11:15 a.m. service yesterday as Jim Oakes, the
senior warden, announced that more than 90 percent of eligible voters
resolved to sever ties with the U.S. church and retain control of
church property.

"A new day has begun," said Oakes. The congregation then sang a hymn,
Number 525, specially selected by Minns. It began, "The church's one
foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. . . ."

Outside after the service, members were somber but resolute about a
decision that they say culminated a long period of disenchantment with
the Episcopal Church, dating back to the ordination of women in the
1970s. Their alienation grew with Robinson's election.

"I want to do what's right in the Lord's eyes," said Vicki Robb, 53,
an Alexandria public relations executive, who said the church's
leftward drift was becoming intolerable. "It's kind of embarassing
when you tell people that you're Episcopal."

Minns said the process of separation had been emotionally wrenching.
"This is a family struggle, no question about that," he said. "And it
is a very painful one, but we have managed to conduct the struggle in
a way that has sought to honor those with whom we disagree."

Truro and The Falls Church were formed before the U.S. denomination
even existed. George Washington was a member of the vestry at The
Falls Church.

Liberal Episcopal leaders said yesterday's vote was not surprising
given the increasingly conservative tilt of the parishes involved.
"Frankly, anyone who didn't agree has long since left those parishes.
They've been headed that way for years," said Joan Gundersen,
president of Progressive Episcopalians of Pittsburgh.

The departure is regrettable, she said, adding: "Every time one of
these churches leaves, their voice becomes an even smaller minority.
And I'm sorry to see that. One of the beliefs of the Episcopal Church
has been how we can live together and worship together under widely
varying interpretations of belief."

Conservative congregations have left the church in the past, including
in the 1970s when ordinations of women began, and a number have done
so since Robinson's election. In some cases, dissident churches have
fought their diocese for the church property. Many court rulings have
been in favor of the dioceses, although some recent cases in
California have gone the other way.

Representatives of CANA, the Fairfax-based splinter group, said
yesterday that they remain confident they can reach a settlement with
the diocese that will allow them to retain the churches. "We expect to
be able to settle the questions of property in a peaceful way," said
Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church.

CANA wants to be home for conservative Episcopalians and possibly a
future indpendent arm of the Anglican Communion within the United
States. But officials with the Anglican Communion appeared to distance
themselves from that idea late last week. On Friday, the
secretary-general of the Communion issued a statement emphasizing that
CANA is simply a mission of the church of Nigeria, nothing more.

Staff writer Christian Davenport contributed to this report.

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