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Oncoming Litigation and Our Road Ahead

Earlier this week, leaders of The Falls Church-CANA decided to continue litigating the now seven-year long case of who owns Episcopal Church property, notifying their congregation that they now plan to appeal their case to the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a unanimous ruling in favor of our Diocese and The Falls Church Episcopal and against the case of the so-called “break away” parish whose leaders attempted to claim Episcopal Church property as their own. It is all or part of that decision which is now being appealed.

In response, I want to repeat, with some modifications, something I wrote about back in 2010, long before a call to serve as Rector of The Falls Church Episcopal was on my horizon, and then offer an observation about the way forward.

I have long held a lot of respect for conservative parish leaders like my colleagues Tom Simmons (St. Peter’s, Purcellville) and John Sheehan (Our Redeemer, Aldie) and others throughout the country who, despite strong differences of opinion with the overall direction of The Episcopal Church, stay in the Episcopal Church and fight for change; I also have a lot of respect for my progressive/liberal colleagues who are delighted with the overall direction of the Episcopal Church and say “full steam ahead.”

I also have a lot of respect for those conservatives who, over the years, decided they could no longer in good conscience remain in the Episcopal Church but who had the courage of their convictions and left Episcopal Church property behind when they left the Episcopal Church.

What I do not understand, or respect, are the actions of those who decided to leave the Episcopal Church but tried (are trying) to take Episcopal Church property with them.

Had leaders within The Falls Church CANA acknowledged -- as George Beavens (Christ our Lord, Lake Ridge) did in this Diocese and as did many others in other dioceses -- that when you leave an Episcopal church, you leave its property behind, we would not be in court. Period.

Had that been the leadership provided, hundreds of thousands – probably millions – of dollars would have been freed for other purposes. Not to mention the time and energy that has been spent on litigation over the past seven years.

It grieves me that the Church is in court: if nothing else, the sight of one member of the Body of Christ suing another is bad evangelism.

So why are we in court? I suppose we (as The Falls Church Episcopal, The Diocese of Virginia, and The Episcopal Church) could be Biblical literalists, and when someone tries stealing our garment, to give them our cloak, as well. In fact, I like to think that if someone stole all the computers at our church, or the Christmas or Easter offering, and that person knew he was stealing it -- knew he was doing wrong but doing it anyway -- that maybe we would find it in ourselves to give that person our fine silver and several thousand of our pledge dollars as well, in the hope that such actions would bring him to repentance and amendment of life, à la the Bishop of Digne and the thief Jean Valjean in Les Misérables.

But we (TFCE, the Diocese and the Episcopal Church) didn’t take that option, partly because CANA leaders do not think they are stealing anything: they believe they are entitled to the property and money they are trying to take. Capitulating to that kind of entitlement behavior only rewards it. In the long run, it also encourages others to behave in the same way. 

More to the point, Episcopal Church property is not “ours” to hand over to them anyway: the vestry, the Bishop and the Diocese are stewards -- care-takers -- of property that previous generations of Episcopalians built for future generations of Episcopalians.

So, for now, the legal case will drag on.

For how long? By The Falls Church-CANA’s own reckoning, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court as to whether or not to hear their case will be made known late this year or early 2014. And that may be the end of the road: As leaders of The Falls Church-CANA readily admit, the Supreme Court denies a large percentage of requests for review without comment. Even if the court does hear their case, we may not have a ruling until the summer of 2014 or later.

What to do in the meantime?

Well, maybe it’s because at the end of this month, our daughter Elizabeth will be getting her driver’s license, but I’m reminded of something that you teach beginning drivers.

If you’re driving at night, and someone is coming the opposite direction with their brights or high beams on, you must resist the temptation to stare at those lights.

It is human nature to move toward that which we concentrate on. If you stare at the brights, you’ll be drawn into them, perhaps dangerously so. 

We must learn to look away from the annoyance and distraction, and instead concentrate on the road on which we are driving and the direction in which we are going. 

Here at The Falls Church Episcopal, thanks to the prayerful and hard work of the vestry, we have a completed a 3-5 year vision process. For the past year, we’ve spent time asking what God’s will might be for this particular faith community at this particular time.

We came up with five visions, or directions we believe we’re called to go. We tested these visions or directions in a series of dinners and listening sessions over the course of several months. And based on congregational feedback, we added a sixth.

So here, in no particular order, and along with the scriptural grounding for each vision, is the road on which we are driving: the direction we feel called to go:

With God’s help, The Falls Church Episcopal will grow both numerically and spiritually: we will draw increasing numbers of newcomers, and invite them into deeper involvement in the ministries of the church while equipping all our members to grow as disciples of Jesus.

Why: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

We are a welcoming group of believers. We are proud of our heritage as Christians worshipping in the Episcopalian tradition; we have love for one another, and are an open, outreach-oriented people who offer a sense of community to people seeking connection, purpose, and Christian community. Jesus told his followers that they are “the light of the world;” that “a town built on a hill cannot be hidden,” and that we are to “let our light shine before others” so that God may be glorified. We have a “message of trust in the hope-filled promises of Jesus” – in other words, we are, and we have, good news to offer, and we seek to draw others into that good news as we grow in our own discipleship. 

With God’s help, The Falls Church will encourage and equip all parishioners to live out their baptismal covenant promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

Why: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

When Jesus summarized his own “mission” he said he was sent to “to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of Lord’s favor.” As Jesus’ followers, we are called not only to address the practical every day needs of the poor, but in addition, we are each challenged, in our baptismal covenant, to address underlying causes of poverty and injustice.

It was discussions of the above vision on outreach that gave rise to another vision, that of providing quality, proactive pastoral care to our members.

Why: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

This vision is already taking new wings, with the reactivation of a Stephen Ministry program, and with Jim Councilor on board as chief administrator, Rev. Cathy and I are more and more freed to provide pastoral care to those in need, as well as to equip lay leaders who have this gift to share it with others.

With God’s help, The Falls Church Episcopal will have a vibrant children and youth ministry.

Why: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-6)

Children and youth are not just the future of the church: they ARE the church. God seems to be drawing increasing numbers of families with young children to our worship services. We rejoice as children find leadership roles in worship and ministry at The Falls Church. We teach, through conscious words, programs, and example, the vital truths of our faith as we prepare children and youth for lives of Christian leadership and service in the world. Our vision is to offer a ministry that will attract youth of the community to our parish because of the quality of our offerings.

With God’s help, The Falls Church will be known for its outstanding music programs. They will draw children from disadvantaged backgrounds into affordable or free music lessons, train a generation of church youth in highest quality Christian music, and continue to provide church worship services with vibrant, inspiring vocal and instrumental music.

Why: “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. … Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” (Psalm 96)

Voices and instruments joined in praising God are an “outward and visible” – or least audible! – sign of God’s kingdom coming, and God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven. They offer a powerful way to worship God, creating harmony and beauty as a manifestation of Christ and the church. Excellent music draws people to the community. Music education offers youth and adults the opportunity to become excellent musicians, trained in traditional and contemporary offerings. The vision of offering voice and instrumental lessons to children of the community with limited financial resources and have them share in the worship of the church is a powerful way to bring good news, with the potential to transform lives.

With God’s help, the buildings and grounds of The Falls Church Episcopal – including the Southgate Property – will be good news to the community of Falls Church. 

Why: “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain.” (Ps 127:1)

We believe it is strategically wise to build on our assets, and one of our assets is our buildings and grounds. They are centrally located, historically significant, and spacious. We have an opportunity to offer our buildings and grounds – including the adjacent Southgate property – as a tangible way to serve the wider community of Falls Church. We want not only ourselves, but the place itself…the buildings and grounds…to be known in the wider community as good news, a helpful, open, friendly resource for the betterment of the city. In addition, we have a responsibility to our city, state, and indeed the nation to share our historic building, grounds, artifacts, and historical records with all who want to understand the history of the Episcopal Church in the context of our nation’s founding and growth. Further, we wish to offer our facilities to the diocese and to other compatible faith communities and organizations as partners in the gospel.

One day soon, the bright, distracting lights of litigation will have passed by. We don’t want to ignore those lights, but neither do we want to concentrate on, or be drawn into, them.

The good news is, we’re pedal-to-the-metal on our own road. We have, I hope you agree, exciting directions to go. 

The Falls Church Episcopal congregation is simultaneously one of the oldest, and one of the newest faith communities in the Diocese and nation. What an honor to be part of this new story. How exciting it is to invite others to join in.

Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.


  1. What a wonderful vision! I wish you many green lights on your journey :). Sharon Boivin

  2. Stick with it---in twenty years, the CANA will be as irrelevant as the Reformed Episcopal Church is today.

  3. I'm distressed to hear that this is still an ongoing issue. It is a tragic waste of time, money and effort that could be so useful in other purposes. But, I feel in my heart that right will prevail and that the future will be bright for all of the ministries at The Falls Church Episcopal. Stay with it and don't look at that bright light! I'll keep you all, and the wider church, in my prayers.

  4. Could you please explain how the CANA churches defying the established Episcopal Church authorities and claiming control of their property amounts to stealing and a sense of entitlement, while the English churches defying the established Catholic Church authorities and claiming control of their property does not amount to stealing and a sense of entitlement? It seems that in both situations, the breakaway group just denies that the established authority ever had the right to prohibit their actions, and thus I am having troubling seeing how these two situations are fundamentally different. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your question/comment, Anthony. In response, assuming that what you are referring is England's participation in the Protestant Reformation in the mid to late 1500's, I would say that a major difference is the fact that back then and over there, the separation of church and state didn't really exist, and it was difficult if not impossible to separate government, taxation, and land ownership from ecclesiology and theology. Plus, with notable exceptions, in the Protestant Reformation, almost the entire nation "broke away," verses (in the case of the Diocese of Virginia) about a dozen parishes.

      This is of course one of the issues still being litigated by The Falls Church CANA, but in the Commonwealth of Virginia, property owned by the Episcopal Church is held in trust for The Episcopal Church. Vestries are stewards, or care-takers of property that was built by Episcopalians, for Episcopalians. If a group within that Episcopal church, however large, decides for whatever reasons that they no longer can identify with the overall direction of The Episcopal Church, that group is free to leave. But (again, pending the outcome of the United States Supreme Court) they are not free to claim Episcopal Church property as their own.

      Or as I've explained to those who are following this controversy from a distance: You can quit your job on principle, and you can call your boss names on your way out the door -- and you may well be justified in doing both. But don't expect to keep the company car and corner office.


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