The Circuit Court of Fairfax County ruled last night that it was appropriate for the CANA congregations to file their claims under the 57-9 “Division Statute.” In its opinion, the Court explicitly acknowledged that constitutional issues remain and there will be a hearing on those issues on May 28, 2008. At issue is the government’s ability to intrude into the freedom of the Episcopal Church and other churches to organize and govern themselves according to their faith and doctrine. We strongly believe that, while we may have theological disagreements within the Episcopal Church, those disagreements are ours to resolve according to our faith and governance.The opinion and order of the court can be found here.
The implications of the Court’s ruling reach beyond the Episcopal Church and the property issues before us. The constitutional issues, on which the Court explicitly did not rule, have implications for every church in Virginia.
It is also important to note the Court has not yet ruled on the property issues in this matter. This fall the Court will consider our property claims against those who have left the Episcopal Church and yet continue to occupy Episcopal Church property while loyal Episcopalians are forced to worship elsewhere. That is simply wrong. A trial on those claims is scheduled for October.
We are asking the Court to affirm that the Diocese has sole control over all real and personal property associated with the Church. We proceed with our claims with sadness for those who have sought to leave but with confidence that we are being faithful stewards of what God has given us in these churches.
When the CANA congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church in protest, they abandoned their Episcopal brothers and sisters of the past, the present and the future. Having denounced the Episcopal Church, the congregations set out to separate themselves from the Diocese of Virginia yet occupy and seek control of Episcopal Church property. The people in the CANA congregations were free to leave, but they cannot take Episcopal property with them.
The short version of an explanation would be to say that Virginia has this rather unique law, Virginia Code 59-7(A), adopted during the Civil War, which allows a congregation to vote on which side to join when there is a split in a denomination. The Church of Nigeria claims that there has been a split in TEC. The Diocese of Virginia claims that there has not been a split, and that we are not a denomination. The court's opinion is that the Virginia Code applies in this case.
The constitutional issues will be addressed in May. Property issues will be determined this Fall.
I find it rather strange that a secular court can decide that we are a Congregational denomination. I would imagine that the UCC will be rather surprised as well.
This is far from over, so there's no reason for strong reactions. The saddest issue is that from what I understand, over 4 million dollars have already been wasted on this case. Imagine the ministry both the Church of Nigeria and TEC could have accomplished with those funds.
Pray for Virginia.
Pray for the Church.
UPDATE: From the Office of the Presiding Bishop:
We are obviously disappointed in yesterday's ruling by the trial judge against the Episcopal Church and the Diocese that involved one Virginia statutory issue in the case. While we believe that the Court's conclusion that Virginia's unusual "division" statute applies to the current situation in the Diocese, the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion is incorrect, there will time enough in the future to seek review of that decision if it becomes necessary. In the meantime, we shall present to the Court at the scheduled argument in May our contention that if the statute means what the Court has held, it plainly deprives the Episcopal Church and the Diocese, as well as all hierarchical churches, of their historic constitutional rights to structure their polity free from governmental interference and thus violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced.
We also note that this decision does not bar the contentions of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese regarding control over the property of the departing congregations that will be presented to the Court in the fall.