The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia went to court on Wednesday over the property of 11 conservative congregations that departed from the Episcopal Church.
In the filed lawsuits against the breakaway churches, the diocese asks the court to declare it the legal owner of the property and to restrain further occupancy of the property by the separated congregations which have continued to hold worship services there since their votes in December.
After the December vote in which the majority of congregants from the Virginia churches chose to leave the Episcopal Church over controversy on Scriptural authority, particularly on the issue of homosexuality, the diocese and breakaway Anglicans had initially made efforts to avoid litigation over church property. Negotiations came to a halt mid-January after Virginia Bishop Peter Lee felt he needed to preserve the mission of the church and the minority members who voted against the split and that previous attempts to settle the property matter proved futile for the diocese.
In an issued statement on Jan. 26, Episcopal bishops from the Middle Atlantic area expressed their full support for Lee and his actions concerning the congregations that withdrew, stating that they are "proud" to be his colleagues.
Although Anglican leaders now part of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) – an outreach imitative of the Church of Nigeria – called the diocese to return to the negotiating table, the diocese went forward to court to recover the properties which are worth tens of millions of dollars.
Most of the congregations that split initiated the court proceedings, the diocese said, when they filed reports in December to comply with Virginia law which requires post-vote reports when a church that splits from a denomination wishes to keep its property. Although the conservative Anglicans announced that the diocese was formerly informed of the court step, the diocese filed responses last week to those previous actions, according to the Episcopal News Service, objecting to any transfer of property.
The court action on Wednesday comes weeks after the diocesan Executive Board adopted resolutions declaring the property of the breakaway congregations "abandoned" and authorizing the bishop to take steps to recover and secure the property.
Lee had clarified then that the issue was not about property, but about preserving the legacy of the mission of the Episcopal Church.
The congregations named in the lawsuits are: Christ the Redeemer, Centreville; Church of the Apostles, Fairfax; Church of the Epiphany, Herndon; Church of Our Saviour, Oatlands; Church of the Word, Gainesville; Potomac Falls Episcopal, Sterling; St. Margaret's, Woodbridge; St. Paul's, Haymarket; St. Stephen's, Heathsville; Truro, Fairfax City; and The Falls Church, Falls Church.
Truro Church and The Falls Church were two of the largest and most historic congregations in the diocese that voted to split.