David Bena writes as a columnist for the Times Dispatch:
It’s a sad day for Christendom when a national church attacks faithful Christians instead of encouraging them in the faith. Typically, churches attack the sins of this world and offer solutions to the world’s problems.
Yet this is the situation that 11 Anglican churches find themselves in since the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church attacked us with lawsuits.
Our churches were undergoing amicable property settlement negotiations with the Diocese in January 2007 when it and the Episcopal Church abruptly broke off those discussions. They then filed lawsuits against our churches, our ministers, and more than 100 volunteers serving on our vestries (governing boards).
Our congregations simply wished to remain faithful to the historic teachings of the Anglican Communion and could not in good conscience follow the revisionist direction of the Episcopal Church. Unfortunately, the Episcopal Church and the Diocese walked away from us and the worldwide Anglican Communion by choosing to reinterpret Scripture on a number of issues. They sued us when we refused to follow them on that prodigal path.
Consistent with Virginia law, and as agreed to by the Diocese in a “standstill agreement,” our churches reported to the local circuit courts our votes to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese and to affiliate with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America through membership in the Anglican District of Virginia.
THE DIOCESE and the Episcopal Church have no legal right to our property. Among other things, our churches’ own trustees hold title for the benefit of the congregations, and long-established Virginia law does not recognize denominational trusts in congregational property like those that the Diocese and the Episcopal Church claim. One of the churches — The Falls Church — actually predates the denomination and helped establish it. It is somewhat absurd for the Diocese and the Episcopal Church to suggest that churches cannot disaffiliate from the denomination they helped create.
This Virginia law says the majority of the church is entitled to its property when there is a division within the denomination. Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows issued an April 3 ruling in which he held that there is a “division of the first magnitude” within the Diocese, the Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion at large. He ruled that the Virginia Division Statute applies in this situation in support of our congregations’ efforts to keep our property.
At the current stage of this unfortunate litigation, the constitutionality of the Virginia Division Statute is being challenged by the Diocese and the Episcopal Church. But to resolve the issue at hand, there is no need for civil courts to wade into issues relating to theology or doctrine.
The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that states can resolve church property disputes based on “neutral principles” of law, such as majority rule — which is what the Division Statute says.
If the Episcopal Church were as hierarchical as it claims, all it had to do was put title to these properties in the name of its bishops, as the Catholic Church does. Then the Virginia Division Statute would not even apply.
THE DIVISION STATUTE was adopted by the Virginia General Assembly to respond to numerous church divisions that arose during the 19th century — some before, some during, and some after the Civil War. The statute provides a neutral legal mechanism — applying the democratic principle of majority rule — to resolve these types of disputes. A number of both Methodist and Presbyterian congregations successfully invoked the statute after its adoption in 1867.
The Episcopal Church’s own complaint even acknowledges that it does not hold title to any property of these 11 churches and that the churches’ own trustees hold title to all such property for the benefit of the congregations.
The Episcopal Church’s position actually creates constitutional problems. According to it, the meaning of the key terms in the Division Statute — “division” and “branch” — vary among denominations, based on each denomination’s internal rules and structure. That would twist a law that resolves church property disputes based on a neutral principle — majority rule — into a law that requires the courts to get into a religious thicket. The Supreme Court has said that should be avoided.
In other parts of the country, amicable negotiations over property and other matters have been resolved. Our Anglican churches have invited the Episcopal Church and the Diocese to return to the negotiating table several times. The leaders of the Anglican Communion have repeatedly echoed that call, but Episcopal leaders are evidently not interested in settling anything amicably.
Pitting Christian against Christian in court does nothing to save one soul, strengthen one family, or help one person in need — and literally millions of dollars that have been going toward legal fees would be much better spent in serving those true missions of the faith.
David Bena is a contact bishop in the Anglican District of Virginia and suffragan bishop in the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.