The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has declared the 11 churches that broke from the denomination as "abandoned," and will thus take any necessary steps to recover the properties.
"Because we believe that God’s promises to his people continue to be reliable, we will seek the return of the churches of the Diocese of Virginia that are occupied by dissidents," Virginia Bishop Peter Lee said in a letter to the diocese on Thursday.
The "dissenting" congregations had voted unanimously in December to leave the Episcopal Church and join a separate conservative organization – Convocation of Anglicans in North America – under the oversight of Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, an open critic of the Episcopilian church's accepting gay relationships
While the breakaway churches and the diocese had agreed to a 30-day standstill to avoid litigation over property, the diocese announced last week that it would not renew the agreement. Now, the diocese is taking action to secure the multi-million dollar properties.
The Executive Board of the diocese unanimously declared the 11 churches abandoned to "preserve" the mission of the church especially as the minority members of the parishes who voted against the split struggle without vestries, clergy and churches.
"The spiritual abandonment of their Episcopal brothers and sisters of the past, the present and the future, is perhaps the greatest offense for which there is no redress under our tradition," Lee said of the congregations that left. "In the structure of the Episcopal Church, individuals may come and go but parishes continue."
Some of the remaining congregants, including those of St. Stephen's in Heathsville, have already met to elect a vestry, and a delegate to Council as they worship at a nearby church. Lee reported that several other congregations have planned to meet to take similar steps toward continuing as the Episcopal Church.
Truro and The Falls Church, two of the largest and most historic churches that left the national body, had said earlier that they hold the title to their properties.
Efforts to reach an amicable separation, however, were rebuffed, said spokesmen for the two megachurches, according to USA Today.
Lee, however, said the diocese has made numerous attempts over the years to accommodate the views of the breakaway Anglican leaders. And it became clear to them that the conservative congregations would hold no other position than the diocese relinquishing its claim to the church properties, he said.
"It became clear that the process of negotiation would be unduly cumbersome and would risk further a second alienation of those loyal Episcopalians who had already been disenfranchised by the vote of the majority of their former members," Lee added.
He further mentioned receiving a letter from the breakaway congregations "threatening action against me and any other diocesan officials who ... 'trespass' on Episcopal Church property."
But the Virginia bishop made clear that the "differences are not about property but about the legacy we have received for the mission of Christ and our obligation to preserve that legacy for the future.”
In the coming months, Lee urged diocese members to turn away from opinions that will be aired in the media and to instead pray for those who separated themselves from the church as they "may be responding to a genuine call to new ministry in a different place and in a different way."
"The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia will mourn their loss."