This is the second Virginia Anglican parish to reach a settlement with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in recent weeks. From Robin Adams and Church of the Word:
GAINESVILLE, VA – Church of the Word (COTW), one of a handful of Northern Virginia churches embroiled in a four-year long lawsuit with The Episcopal Church (TEC), will retain its church property after an out-of-court settlement signed Monday, April 18, released it from the pending litigation.
The leadership of COTW, which is a multiracial congregation made up of predominantly young families, is relieved to have achieved their major goals of separating from TEC, retaining their property, and preserving their tradition of worship and ministry.
Church of the Word is one of a number of formerly Episcopal congregations that had severed ties with the denomination over matters of doctrinal drift and novel pastoral practices. Upon breaking away from the denomination in December 2006, TEC filed a lawsuit against eleven Northern Virginia churches in an attempt to keep them from retaining their property. Currently, the next phase of this litigation will continue for the remaining seven churches with the commencement of a late-April 2011 trial in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Circuit Court.
COTW’s settlement allows it to keep its property, and now free of litigation, may concentrate on its vision, which is to ‘Encounter and Share Jesus Christ’. It does, however, require that COTW sever its affiliation with the newly established Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), and the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) for a period of five years.
COTW’s pastor, Rev. Robin Adams said, “This settlement allows us to keep the church building that was paid for by us, not the Episcopal Church. It also allows us to put this painful experience behind us and move on with ministering the love of Christ to a broken world. We will not lose our Anglican identity, though we may have to rethink how we do church in the short term.
Adams said the requirement to temporally disaffiliate from ACNA is one of the more difficult aspects of the settlement, but he remains positive.
“Our goal is to return to the ACNA fold when the disaffiliation period is completed as a stronger Christian body,” he said. “We’ll continue to worship in our accustomed manner, and for most of our members, this provision will not even be something they’ll notice in our day-to-day church ministry.”
Adams called the disaffiliation requirement “a failure to ‘respect the dignity of every human being,’ as the baptismal covenant says, and is certainly unchristian.”
“It is heartbreaking that The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia were unwilling to explore out of court settlement options with Church of the Word unless it severed all ties to its orthodox Anglican family,” ADV Chairman Jim Oakes said. “Church of the Word and all within the ADV have been seeking the Lord in prayer as we search for the best path forward. In spite of the separation mandate, we support the members of Church of the Word and they will remain our dear brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Church of the Word has believed all along that its property belonged to those who paid for it – the local congregation. The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, believes that all church assets within the denomination are held in trust for the national church, regardless of state property laws. An earlier court decision sided with the breakaway churches, but was then reversed upon appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. The suit was returned to the circuit court for re-trial based on a different body of law in June 2010.
“We originally voted to leave the Episcopal Church in 2006 over theological and pastoral issue,” COTW’s former senior warden Dane Swenson said. “We felt the denomination had drifted away from basic Christian belief and practices. For example, Anglicans are supposed to hold that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, as opposed to just another possible option among many. And we believe that the Bible is the guiding authority for Christian doctrine, and must not be subservient to or shaped by the culture of the moment.”
Initially the denomination had provided a process by which the congregations could leave the denomination and maintain ownership of the properties they had purchased and maintained.
“Had the Diocese of Virginia stuck to its original agreement in its official ‘Protocol for Departing Congregations,’ then four years of expensive legal action could have been avoided,” Adams said. “Nevertheless we are thankful to have reached settlement with the diocese today.”
While Church of the Word is relieved to be able to keep its property, the congregation actually outgrew its facility long ago and has had to put building plans on hold during the years of uncertainty due to the litigation. Robin Adams says the church will develop its modest site to the best of its abilities, and will refocus on planning for the future.
“Any financial resources we might have saved toward expanding went toward our legal fees in this case,” COTW treasurer Robert Miller said. “Maybe there are people out there who think our stand against biblical compromise was worth the cost. Maybe they’ll help us raise the funds we need. You never know how God will work.”
With faith that God will supply the church’s need, Adams says it will establish a fund for anyone who might like to donate. He’s hoping like-minded friends still in the Episcopal Church might pledge a gift to help Church of the Word, even while they work for reform within that body.
“You never know unless you make your needs known,” Adams says.
Official Statement from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia:
Today the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church announced a settlement with Church of the Word (COTW), Gainesville, the second reached with one of the nine congregations that left the Episcopal Church in 2006 and then sought to retain Episcopal church property. Church of Our Saviour, Oatlands reached a settlement on February 20. “We are pleased to have reached another settlement, an important step toward enabling all involved to focus our shared energies on our important ministries,” said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia.
“This settlement has a set of unique circumstances that led the Diocese to allow COTW to retain Episcopal property,” stated Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the Diocese of Virginia. “Changes in the immediate vicinity of the church, namely massive construction along Route 29 that eliminates direct access to the church, create significant challenges for any congregation in that space. Should COTW ultimately decide to relocate, the Diocese of Virginia has given them the certainty and control they need to determine what is best for the congregation and the day school they offer to the Gainesville community.”
Under the agreement, the Diocese will retain $1.95 million from a payment by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) for loss of value to the property as a result of the construction. In exchange, COTW will retain the church building and personal property, and will be responsible for the mortgage on the property. COTW will also retain $85,000 in cash from the VDOT payment and be permitted to negotiate for additional monies from VDOT. In addition, COTW will voluntarily disaffiliate from the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) for a period of five years. The pastor of COTW will be allowed to remain in the CANA healthcare plan and retirement plan, if permissible under the conditions of these benefit plans.
“This is a welcome and appropriate resolution for all involved,” said Bishop Johnston. “It allows everyone to continue their important work while we will continue to preserve and expand the legacy of the Episcopal Church for future generations.”
The trial on property issues for the remaining seven Episcopal Church properties will begin in the Fairfax Circuit Court on Monday, April 25.
Official Statement from the Anglican District of Virginia, which calls the settlement “heartbreaking”:
FAIRFAX, Va. (April 19, 2010) – Anglican District of Virginia member parish Church of the Word in Gainesville, Va., has voted to take a settlement option presented by the Diocese of Virginia and The Episcopal Church in the matter of their property. The settlement results in Church of the Word’s outright ownership of its property for future ministry. However, it will require Church of the Word to disaffiliate from the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV), the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), and any other Anglican entity for a period of at least five years.
“It is heartbreaking that The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia were unwilling to explore out of court settlement options with Church of the Word unless it severed all ties to its orthodox Anglican family. Church of the Word and all within ADV have been seeking the Lord in prayer as we search for the best path forward. In spite of the separation mandate, we support the members of Church of the Word and they will remain our dear brothers and sisters in Christ,” said ADV Chairman Jim Oakes.
“There’s no question: This litigation is a distraction from our mission and the good work our churches are doing every day to change lives. We never wanted a court battle in the first place and were saddened when amicable negotiations over properties that were purchased and maintained by our congregations were abruptly cut off.
“The litigation, which now involves seven parishes, does not define ADV and has not hindered our growth. In fact, we have grown to 32 member congregations and nine mission fellowships. We will continue to pray for a quick resolution to this matter as we look forward to the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection on Easter morning,” Oakes concluded.