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A great divorce

After years of litigation, a court awards the historic Falls Church-one of the oldest in America-to The Episcopal Church, and Anglicans who once made an overwhelming majority of the congregation move out

Photo by Luke Sharrett for WORLD

A great divorce
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FALLS CHURCH, Va.-Churchmen founded The Falls Church before the colonists founded the United States, in 1732, as an Anglican church that gave the city of Falls Church, Va., its name. Founding Fathers like George Washington once sat in its pews. At the time, Episcopal and Anglican were not distinct terms. The Episcopal Church, in fact, didn't officially exist. But today they are most definitely distinct factions in northern Virginia.

After five years of court battles between The Episcopal Church (TEC) and its Virginia congregations that have broken away to join the Anglican Church in North America, a court has ordered The Falls Church Anglican congregation out of the red-brick colonial property. That means a congregation of 4,000-who voted to separate from TEC over doctrinal issues-is handing valuable church property to a 75-member Episcopal congregation representing the remnant who want to remain in the liberal TEC. Departing Anglicans must find borrowed meeting places in local middle schools and Baptist churches.

The Falls Church story has repeated itself around the country as more than 100 congregations have left the shrinking TEC because of the Episcopal leadership's increasing distance from orthodox theology. Courts have mostly ruled in favor of TEC, awarding property to the originating denomination after lengthy lawsuits-even as most of its members are moving on, or some would argue holding on, to Anglicanism. But when TEC wins property disputes in court, it sometimes has no parishioners left to use those churches.

"It was like a divorce," said John Yates, who has been rector of The Falls Church for 33 years and now leads the Anglican congregation. Five years of legal battles have exhausted and saddened Yates, but the Anglican church is growing faster than ever, planting four churches and counting in the last five years.

Michelle McCarten, the children's choir director with the Anglican congregation, knows that The Falls Church is just a building, but her childhood memories are all tied up in the place. McCarten was baptized at the church and spent her entire upbringing there. She went to college, lived in Connecticut for a few years, then came back to The Falls Church to follow in her mother's footsteps and be the children's choir director.

A few years ago, McCarten's father dropped dead while he was out on a run, and she recalls that members of the church stayed close to her and her mother during that time, doing more than bringing meals. When she thinks of home, "I think of the church before I think of where my mom lives," she said. She and her mom had close friends in the church who decided to remain Episcopal after the split, and they've grown somewhat distant. "These are people that we have worshipped with-" she said. "It's very tender right now so we can't talk about it. We can talk about anything else."

The schism opened up, as it did across The Episcopal Church, with the 2003 consecration of New Hampshire bishop Gene Robinson, an open, practicing homosexual. But it climaxed at the Episcopal Church's General Convention in June 2006, when the church elected as its presiding bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who has said that Jesus is not the only way to God. She and other church leaders have called into question basic Christian tenets like the physical resurrection of Jesus, and have supported Robinson's consecration along with other gay clergy.

In December 2006, The Falls Church almost unanimously voted to break away from TEC and join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, which is under the authority of the Anglican province of Nigeria. Here was The Falls Church, where slaveholders worshipped in colonial days, placing itself under the authority of an African archbishop.

The TEC diocese maintains it was not the "aggressor" in bringing the property claim to court because The Falls Church filed a record of its vote to break away from the church in court. But the Anglicans said that was a record they had to file in court to have any chance of keeping the property. After the 2006 congregational vote, the diocese abandoned a tentative agreement on the property-an agreement the diocese said would have never gained approval, despite ongoing negotiations. The Episcopalians filed a lawsuit for the property in early 2007. It's been a messy divorce.

Five years of litigation began, piling up $4 million in legal fees for the Anglican congregation. The Falls Church Anglican won its case initially, but then the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against the Anglicans and remanded the case, and the same judge who had earlier ruled for the Anglicans ruled against them. The Anglicans may appeal to the state Supreme Court, but some involved in the case doubt that the ruling would change since the state court heard the case the first time.

Under the final court ruling the Anglican congregation had to turn over the church property, which the longtime parish administrator Bill Deiss valued at $40 million to $50 million. The Anglicans also had to pay the Episcopalians $2.8 million, the amount of money on the books when the Anglicans separated from the Episcopal Church.

The Anglican church has almost no reserves now, only a two-week cushion, but Deiss noted that the breakaway congregation is both generous and relatively affluent. At the last service at The Falls Church on May 13, the congregation gave about $330,000, Deiss said, nearly triple what the church normally collects on a Sunday.

The Virginia courts awarded six other Anglican church properties to TEC, and three of them have no Episcopal congregation left to use the properties. The diocese may sell some of the properties, said Henry Burt, chief of staff for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, but he said it would not sell The Falls Church or another historic property, Truro Church, for which the diocese has no congregation. Truro's Anglican congregation is still meeting there, under an agreement with the diocese requiring that the Anglicans pay for the upkeep.

TEC has sold some other properties it has won in court over the last few years, but Jefferts Schori has forbidden selling property to Anglicans. In a recent interview with NPR, she described the Anglican congregations as "competitors." (Her spokesperson said she wasn't available for an interview for this article.) "I've had two principles throughout this," Jefferts Schori said. "One, that the church receive a reasonable approximation of fair market value for assets that are disposed of; and, second, that we not be in the business of setting up competitors that want to either destroy or replace the Episcopal Church." She hasn't enforced these two principles in all cases: In 2010 the Diocese of Central New York sold a property it won from an Anglican congregation to a Muslim awareness center for well below market value.

On Sunday, May 13, Yates preached through Romans 8 during The Falls Church congregation's last service, urging his congregation to be patient during the coming period of inconvenience. "Some of you will find this inconvenience annoying, upsetting, and you just don't want to mess with it," Yates told the congregation. "We have to ask the question, 'Will we be committed to Christ and committed to our church?'" He read Thomas Paine's famous passage on "sunshine patriots" written during the Revolutionary War. "I don't want to be a sunshine Christian," Yates said. "Will you commit yourself now to no complaining? No grumbling? ... If we're going to navigate truly big challenges that we may face one day, let's face this one without complaint."

At the service, five babies and one father were baptized. The congregation sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," belting the line, "Let goods and kindred go ..." One of the clergy prayed for the Episcopal congregation, that it care for "this consecrated place" and preach the gospel. Grown men cried during the last song, "In Christ Alone," as everyone lifted their arms in the air.

Jim Long, who has attended The Falls Church since 1988, stacked chairs at the end of the service and shrugged when I asked whether he was sad about leaving. One difference he saw was that in these new rotating meeting places, he would have more chairs to set up for the service, and then take down at the end of the service. "Life will go on, we'll just be in a different building," he assessed.

That night the congregation met to hear stories from the Anglican church planters. Toward the end, Yates said he hugged his wife Susan. "I couldn't let go because I would start weeping," he said. "I've married and buried a lot of people in this church."

The Anglican congregation had to leave behind everything purchased before the split, so the choir will now sing robe-less. The church left behind an organ and a Steinway grand piano. The church also left behind the communion silver. But an antiques dealer in Pennsylvania who heard about the litigation and the property loss gave the congregation a tableful of communion silver he had been collecting for decades, enough for several churches.

Tuesday, May 15, was final move-out day. Yates glanced down the hallway where the robes he has preached in for 33 years were hanging. He would be leaving them behind also. The coffee table in his office was piled with keys to return. He could take his books, which he himself purchased, "So that's a blessing," he said. As part of the ruling, the Anglican church loses the rectory, Yates' home where he and his wife have raised their five children, most of whom were married at the church. The diocese has said he and his wife can stay at the house for a few months while they find a new place to rent, but they don't know where they will go.

The children's choir held rehearsals on the last day the Anglican church was in the building for their production of Joseph: From the Pit to the Palace.

"I'd like Curt to be the cupbearer," said McCarten in a room of about 30 kids.

"Yessssss," said the diminutive Curt, pumping his fist.

McCarten told the children they would be performing the musical in nearby Columbia Baptist Church. "It'll be a great place for our musical," she assured them.

After going through several musical numbers, McCarten led the children into the sanctuary, where they sang a benediction they knew by heart: "Go with us Lord and guide the way through this and every coming day." McCarten asked the children to pray to close their practice. One small voice prayed "that there would be love in the new church-that the people who are moving to the church we're now in would enjoy it." Another prayed "that we wouldn't be so depressed about not being in the church and that we would be close to God." The children ate cookies and cleared out, congregants cleaned the place, and a locksmith arrived to change the locks. Yates' daughter made a cake that she left for the Episcopalians.

The Falls Church Anglican is now itinerant, meeting in a middle school one week, a Catholic high school the next, and a Baptist church for one service. Given only a few weeks' notice to move out of their building by the court, the congregation hasn't firmed up its long-term schedule. Part of the church staff is squeezing into an office suite nearby, but most are working wherever they can. At a nearby Starbucks I saw two of the Anglican clergy sitting at a table, typing and talking.

Church staff emphasize that the eviction has been good for The Falls Church Anglican. For one thing, the church had outgrown its Falls Church sanctuary, piling in hundreds more each week than fire codes allowed. And the church has deepened relationships with other churches in the area. The staff now holds its weekly meetings at Columbia Baptist Church. Before the congregation broke away from TEC, the church had to get permission from the denomination to plant churches, and had planted two. In the five years since the breakaway, it has planted four churches in Virginia and is planning to plant another this year in Washington, D.C.

On the last day in the building, Yates sat in his empty office, talking to the young rector of Christ the King, one of the plants, who brought coffee and to-go cups. One of Yates' central missions has been to cultivate young leaders within the church, and he told the children sitting in the last service, "You kids, I can't tell you how important you are to what God wants to do. Give yourself to Jesus. He wants to use you in ways people in my generation have not been used."

The congregation's youth group is large-about 500 kids. But Yates regrets how the litigation has consumed the church's resources that could have been used for ministry: "It hasn't been time wasted, but when you think about all the money that has been spent-" he trailed off. For one, he had hoped to set up a local seminary option through a partnership with a larger seminary.

On Sunday, May 20, the Episcopalians' first service back at the property, The Falls Church was a quiet, empty campus. One little girl sat on a swing on the playground after church, a playground that was full of children the Sunday before. The main sanctuary, where the Anglican congregation filled the pews and overflowed onto the floors feeling the blast of the organ, was empty and silent, the lights off. A bulletin board at the entrance was blank except for bubble letters that read, "Welcome."

Around the corner in a small historic chapel, about 130 people came for the 10:15 service, many of them seniors, including Jessie Thackrey who is 98 and the oldest member of the congregation. She was intent on getting out of her wheelchair and climbing the short stairs into the church, which she did. A few parishioners from another Episcopal congregation that won a historic Virginia property from an Anglican congregation late last year came for the service and brought a day lily. The priest leading the service talked about the congregation's "journey in exile" over the last five years.

The older congregants, with their personal histories, seemed unable to reconcile walking away from The Episcopal Church, and from that place. Charlotte Needham was confirmed in the church in the 1930s. On Sunday morning she arrived at 7:20, she said, to prepare for the 8:15 communion. She stayed for the communion service at 10:15 a.m. too. She spoke warmly of Yates, and found the decision to walk away from the Anglican congregation wrenching. "I regret that it ever happened," she said about the conflict. She hopes the two congregations will reunite someday.

Neither side sees that as a possibility, given the theological differences. "Certain things will never be the way they were," said Burt, the diocese's chief of staff who attended The Falls Church as a boy. "The objective here is not to hurt the [Anglican] congregation. ... The objective is to return Episcopal property to the Episcopal Church. We're hoping daily for [the Anglican church's] success." When I asked him about Jefferts Schori's comments saying essentially the opposite, he said, "I don't have a take on that ... we support our presiding bishop."

"This has cost us a lot. It has cost them too," Yates reflected. But Yates isn't too worried about his own congregation. He's more worried about the shepherding of the Episcopal congregation that is inhabiting the building after him. "It's sobering to think of the clergy who could come here," he said. He said that for a long time he has prayed that even if his congregation left, "the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ would be proclaimed from this place."

Emily Belz

Emily is a former senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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