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"The Coach Sutton Rule" and The Falls Church

Today seems a good day to share an idea I've had for years, but have never before written about, and that's what I'm going to call the "Coach Sutton Rule."

My "Coach Sutton Rule" is based on something that Mr. Mark Sutton, my high school psychology teacher and wrestling coach, taught us wrestlers. It has to do with how we were to conduct ourselves at the end of our wrestling matches.

As you may know, at the end of a high school or college  wrestling match, it's the custom for both wrestlers to walk to the center of the mat and for the referee to hold up the winner's arm, thus signifying who won. Coach Sutton told us that when we walked to the center of the mat, we were to imagine someone taking a photograph of that moment.

And based on our facial expressions and our body language - the way we conducted ourselves - that "no one looking at that picture is to be able to tell, based on how you're acting, whether you were the winner, or the loser, of that match."

In other words: no pouting, and no gloating.  

Who won? Who lost? Can't tell? That's the point.
No pouting in defeat: No matter how disappointed or upset you were, you were to hold yourself up high. Don't hang your head. Don't sulk. Look the opponent in the eye and say (or at least think) "good match."

And no gloating in victory: No matter how relieved or happy you were, you were not to revel in it. Not only were what the NFL is now calling "excessive celebrations" prohibited, any celebration whatsoever was forbidden. Just look your opponent in the eye and say (or at least think) "good match."  

Now the reason the "Coach Sutton" rule is on my mind today is that today (February 28, 2014) the United States Supreme Court was in conference trying to decide whether or not to "grant certiorari" - i.e., hear the case brought to them by leaders of The Falls Church-Anglican regarding who owns Episcopal Church property. While the United States Supreme Court may decide to once again "re-list" (defer making a decision) thus dragging this case out even longer, it's also quite possible that on Monday, March 2 (Mondays are when Supreme Court decisions are normally released) this seven-year-long wrestling match of a lawsuit may finally be OVER, and a winner declared.

(For those of you unfamiliar with this issue, a bit of background: in 2013, the Supreme Court of Virginia issued a unanimous ruling in favor of The Falls Church Episcopal, The Diocese of Virginia, and The Episcopal Church, against the case of the so-called "break away" church now called The Falls Church-Anglican, whose leaders attempted, when they left the Episcopal Church in 2006, to claim Episcopal Church property as their own....something they did from 2006 until 2012, when the courts ordered them to turn the properties back over to The Falls Church Episcopal, the Diocese, and The Episcopal Church. It is the grounds of all or part of that Virginia Supreme Court decision which is now being appealed.)

I say that on Monday "a winner" might be declared. That's our perspective, because if the United States Supreme Court denies the certiorari petition, the other side will have exhausted (as is their right!) every legal possibility all the way to the highest court in the land, and the 2013 ruling of the Virginia Supreme Court will stand, thus ensuring that The Falls Church Episcopal is staying put at The Falls Church Episcopal.

If, on the other hand, the United States Supreme Court grants the certiorari petition, it means this legal case/wrestling match will continue, with the United States Supreme Court likely to hear the case sometime in the fall of this year, and a ruling indicating who "won" or "lost" taking place even later. 

If we get good news on Monday, I'll feel a great deal of relief. But because I'm a relative newcomer to this battle, most of my relief and happiness will be for those who have struggled and fought and sacrificed for the worthy cause of keeping millions of dollars' worth of buildings and grounds built by previous generations of Episcopalians for future generations of Episcopalians. 

But -- God help me -- if we "win" Monday, I'll also remember (and encourage our whole church to remember) the "Coach Sutton rule," and not celebrate.   

Because this whole legal case is so very sad.   

And expensive.

And ultimately, was so unnecessary: as I've written before, there are conservative parish leaders like my colleagues The Rev. Tom Simmons (St. Peter's, Purcellville) and The Rev. 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 work for change within it. And there are also 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. 

Had leaders within The Falls Church-Anglican 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 ever have been 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 spectacle of Christians suing one another is terrible evangelism, a real turn-off to those watching. 

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, as I've written before, 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 (The Falls Church Episcopal, the Diocese and the Episcopal Church) didn't take that option, partly because The Falls Church-Anglican leaders do not seem to 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, and in they eyes of the wider Episcopal Church, it also encourages others to behave in the same way.

More to the point: Episcopal Church property is not "ours" to surrender over to them anyway. Again, vestries and Bishops are stewards -- care-takers -- of property that previous generations of Episcopalians built for future generations of Episcopalians.

So if we "win" Monday, there will be no gloating. The other side will have fought a good fight, one they seem to honestly believe they were called to fight. They are brothers and sisters in Christ, a branch of Christ's body, and as long as they are bearing the fruit of the Spirit, I honestly hope they continue to blossom and grow.  

And if we "lose" (in the short term by cert being granted and the case draggin on) there will be no pouting: With so many ministries going on and so many people hungry for God and Christian community, we don't have the luxury of that. We'll simply look to our next match, look away from the annoyance and distraction of lawsuits, and instead concentrate on the road on which we are driving and the direction in which we are going.  

"Win" or "lose," in other words, we're pedal-to-the-metal on our own road. We have exciting directions to go and an exciting vision to fulfill.   

The Falls Church Episcopal congregation is simultaneously one of the oldest, and one of the newest faith communities in the Diocese and the nation. What a joy to be part of this new story.  


  1. Wonderful post full of Gospel love and truth, John! Thank you!


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