A great divorce

"A great divorce" Continued...

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

Under the final court ruling the Anglican congregation had to turn over the church property, which the longtime parish administrator Bill Deiss valued at $40 million to $50 million. The Anglicans also had to pay the Episcopalians $2.8 million, the amount of money on the books when the Anglicans separated from the Episcopal Church.

The Anglican church has almost no reserves now, only a two-week cushion, but Deiss noted that the breakaway congregation is both generous and relatively affluent. At the last service at The Falls Church on May 13, the congregation gave about $330,000, Deiss said, nearly triple what the church normally collects on a Sunday.

The Virginia courts awarded six other Anglican church properties to TEC, and three of them have no Episcopal congregation left to use the properties. The diocese may sell some of the properties, said Henry Burt, chief of staff for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, but he said it would not sell The Falls Church or another historic property, Truro Church, for which the diocese has no congregation. Truro's Anglican congregation is still meeting there, under an agreement with the diocese requiring that the Anglicans pay for the upkeep.

TEC has sold some other properties it has won in court over the last few years, but Jefferts Schori has forbidden selling property to Anglicans. In a recent interview with NPR, she described the Anglican congregations as "competitors." (Her spokesperson said she wasn't available for an interview for this article.) "I've had two principles throughout this," Jefferts Schori said. "One, that the church receive a reasonable approximation of fair market value for assets that are disposed of; and, second, that we not be in the business of setting up competitors that want to either destroy or replace the Episcopal Church." She hasn't enforced these two principles in all cases: In 2010 the Diocese of Central New York sold a property it won from an Anglican congregation to a Muslim awareness center for well below market value.

On Sunday, May 13, Yates preached through Romans 8 during The Falls Church congregation's last service, urging his congregation to be patient during the coming period of inconvenience. "Some of you will find this inconvenience annoying, upsetting, and you just don't want to mess with it," Yates told the congregation. "We have to ask the question, 'Will we be committed to Christ and committed to our church?'" He read Thomas Paine's famous passage on "sunshine patriots" written during the Revolutionary War. "I don't want to be a sunshine Christian," Yates said. "Will you commit yourself now to no complaining? No grumbling? ... If we're going to navigate truly big challenges that we may face one day, let's face this one without complaint."

At the service, five babies and one father were baptized. The congregation sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," belting the line, "Let goods and kindred go ..." One of the clergy prayed for the Episcopal congregation, that it care for "this consecrated place" and preach the gospel. Grown men cried during the last song, "In Christ Alone," as everyone lifted their arms in the air.

Jim Long, who has attended The Falls Church since 1988, stacked chairs at the end of the service and shrugged when I asked whether he was sad about leaving. One difference he saw was that in these new rotating meeting places, he would have more chairs to set up for the service, and then take down at the end of the service. "Life will go on, we'll just be in a different building," he assessed.

That night the congregation met to hear stories from the Anglican church planters. Toward the end, Yates said he hugged his wife Susan. "I couldn't let go because I would start weeping," he said. "I've married and buried a lot of people in this church."

The Anglican congregation had to leave behind everything purchased before the split, so the choir will now sing robe-less. The church left behind an organ and a Steinway grand piano. The church also left behind the communion silver. But an antiques dealer in Pennsylvania who heard about the litigation and the property loss gave the congregation a tableful of communion silver he had been collecting for decades, enough for several churches.

Tuesday, May 15, was final move-out day. Yates glanced down the hallway where the robes he has preached in for 33 years were hanging. He would be leaving them behind also. The coffee table in his office was piled with keys to return. He could take his books, which he himself purchased, "So that's a blessing," he said. As part of the ruling, the Anglican church loses the rectory, Yates' home where he and his wife have raised their five children, most of whom were married at the church. The diocese has said he and his wife can stay at the house for a few months while they find a new place to rent, but they don't know where they will go.


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