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A great divorce

Religion | After years of litigation, a court awards the historic Falls Church-one of the oldest in America-to The Episcopal Church, and Anglicans who once made an overwhelming majority of the congregation move out

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

FALLS CHURCH, Va.-Churchmen founded The Falls Church before the colonists founded the United States, in 1732, as an Anglican church that gave the city of Falls Church, Va., its name. Founding Fathers like George Washington once sat in its pews. At the time, Episcopal and Anglican were not distinct terms. The Episcopal Church, in fact, didn't officially exist. But today they are most definitely distinct factions in northern Virginia.

After five years of court battles between The Episcopal Church (TEC) and its Virginia congregations that have broken away to join the Anglican Church in North America, a court has ordered The Falls Church Anglican congregation out of the red-brick colonial property. That means a congregation of 4,000-who voted to separate from TEC over doctrinal issues-is handing valuable church property to a 75-member Episcopal congregation representing the remnant who want to remain in the liberal TEC. Departing Anglicans must find borrowed meeting places in local middle schools and Baptist churches.

The Falls Church story has repeated itself around the country as more than 100 congregations have left the shrinking TEC because of the Episcopal leadership's increasing distance from orthodox theology. Courts have mostly ruled in favor of TEC, awarding property to the originating denomination after lengthy lawsuits-even as most of its members are moving on, or some would argue holding on, to Anglicanism. But when TEC wins property disputes in court, it sometimes has no parishioners left to use those churches.

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"It was like a divorce," said John Yates, who has been rector of The Falls Church for 33 years and now leads the Anglican congregation. Five years of legal battles have exhausted and saddened Yates, but the Anglican church is growing faster than ever, planting four churches and counting in the last five years.

Michelle McCarten, the children's choir director with the Anglican congregation, knows that The Falls Church is just a building, but her childhood memories are all tied up in the place. McCarten was baptized at the church and spent her entire upbringing there. She went to college, lived in Connecticut for a few years, then came back to The Falls Church to follow in her mother's footsteps and be the children's choir director.

A few years ago, McCarten's father dropped dead while he was out on a run, and she recalls that members of the church stayed close to her and her mother during that time, doing more than bringing meals. When she thinks of home, "I think of the church before I think of where my mom lives," she said. She and her mom had close friends in the church who decided to remain Episcopal after the split, and they've grown somewhat distant. "These are people that we have worshipped with-" she said. "It's very tender right now so we can't talk about it. We can talk about anything else."

The schism opened up, as it did across The Episcopal Church, with the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire bishop Gene Robinson, an open, practicing homosexual. But it climaxed at the Episcopal Church's General Convention in June 2006, when the church elected as its presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who has said that Jesus is not the only way to God. She and other church leaders have called into question basic Christian tenets like the physical resurrection of Jesus, and have supported Robinson's consecration along with other gay clergy.

In December 2006, The Falls Church almost unanimously voted to break away from TEC and join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, which is under the authority of the Anglican province of Nigeria. Here was The Falls Church, where slaveholders worshipped in colonial days, placing itself under the authority of an African archbishop.

The TEC diocese maintains it was not the "aggressor" in bringing the property claim to court because The Falls Church filed a record of its vote to break away from the church in court. But the Anglicans said that was a record they had to file in court to have any chance of keeping the property. After the 2006 congregational vote, the diocese abandoned a tentative agreement on the property-an agreement the diocese said would have never gained approval, despite ongoing negotiations. The Episcopalians filed a lawsuit for the property in early 2007. It's been a messy divorce.

Five years of litigation began, piling up $4 million in legal fees for the Anglican congregation. The Falls Church Anglican won its case initially, but then the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against the Anglicans and remanded the case, and the same judge who had earlier ruled for the Anglicans ruled against them. The Anglicans may appeal to the state Supreme Court, but some involved in the case doubt that the ruling would change since the state court heard the case the first time.

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