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Episcopal Church, Breakaway Anglicans Fight Over Property

Outside the U.S. capital stands a red brick church with white wooden pews where George Washington served as a vestryman, or lay leader.  The Falls Church was founded in 1732 and even gave its name to the well-to-do suburb where the church is located in northern Virginia.

But in recent years, The Falls Church has become a symbol of a division in the Episcopal Church, a Christian denomination that has given the United States more presidents than any other, and a good share of the country's Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite.

The rupture came after an openly gay man was consecrated as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire in 2004.  The Episcopal Church is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and The Falls Church was one of many congregations that broke from the U.S. church by aligning with conservative Anglican provinces in Africa and South America.

The Reverend John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, says the break was not only over the consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson.  He says broad disagreements over scripture stretched back to the 1960s, with the Episcopal leadership becoming "looser and looser in terms of the range of theological thinking" as well as "the range of what is acceptable morally."

But under Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the national Episcopal Church has filed lawsuits to claim ownership of the often valuable properties of breakaway congregations.  And it has won cases in Connecticut and Georgia.

In northern Virginia, The Falls Church and six other breakaway churches - whose property is valued at $40 million - became the subject of a prolonged court battle.  In January, a Virginia judge ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and The Falls Church congregation now has until April 30 to move out of the old church and the new additions.

"The buildings were built by us.  I had raised a lot of the money.  I remember when we burned the mortgage to pay for the most recent building that we had built," Yates says.  He says that the actions of the Episcopal leadership were "very hard to understand."

"No rector, no congregation, ever owns the property," says the Very Reverend Ian Markham, dean of the Virginia Theological Seminary, the largest Episcopal divinity school in the United States.

"Just because I am a deeply charismatic preacher and teacher inside a congregation, am I allowed to suddenly wake up one morning - having mesmerized my congregation - and say, 'Hey guys, let's take this parish hall and the church and everything else out of the Episcopal church?'  That's not our policy," says Markham.

The Episcopal Church may have won in court, but it has been losing in the pews.  Its membership has been declining, like that of many other mainline Protestant denominations, and two years ago it dipped below 2 million people for the first time.

Roger Ferlo is a professor of religion and culture at the Virginia Theological Seminary.  He spent a decade as the rector of a New York City church in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood with many homosexuals.  Ferlo says half of the 400 people in his church were gay or lesbian.

"These were faithful people," Ferlo says.  "I wasn't going to be the policeman at the door asking them who they slept with before they could worship God."

Ferlo says human sexuality has changed since biblical times, and he rejects Yates' assertion that the Episcopal church has deviated from scripture.

"So much of this masks itself as theological dispute but is in fact deeply social and economic.  It's no accident that the breakaway churches are actually quite affluent, and that many of them have conservative values that are way beyond the issues of religion," Ferlo adds.

He predicts Episcopalianism will bounce back from the crisis because it offers a blend of tradition, scripture and reason that will be meaningful for the next generation.  

"What heartens me teaching in a place like this is that I've got full classes, and half my students are under 35," Ferlo notes.

In Ferlo's seminar on liturgical theology, a dozen students recently analyzed the ceremonial rituals that surround the Super Bowl, the American football championship game.  One of the class members was Melanie Mullen, 37, an African-American with an infectious smile.  Growing up in North Carolina, she went to a Presbyterian church every Sunday.

"I had a hard time thinking of a God that didn't like my gay and lesbian friends," she says, explaining why she drifted away.

But several years ago she joined an Episcopal church in a neighborhood with many homosexuals, and decided to become a priest.

"The idea that the Episcopal Church was in a scandal, taking a stand for gay rights, was actually appealing to me and to a lot of my friends," she says.

Virtually all mainline Protestant denominations in the United States have had extended internal conflicts over the issue of homosexuals in the church, says David Roozen of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.  In Virginia, the breakup ended up costing the congregations millions of dollars and fracturing a number of close friendships.  But Roozen sees a silver lining.

"As peculiar as it would sound, I think it was a good thing," he says. "So much energy was going into fighting each other.  It was consuming so many resources that should have been going into other challenges."

On a recent Sunday, Yates preached a sermon in which he addressed the congregation's anger over the outcome of the court case.

"It's understandable to lose all patience and simply want God to step in and make things right," he told them.

After hearing the sermon, Sharon Knight, a member of The Falls Church, says losing the historic church is a price the congregation is willing to pay to be true to its conservative beliefs.

"Well, our faith isn't in the buildings," she says.  "It's in God."


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.
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