(CNSNews.com) - Eleven Anglican congregations in Virginia -- including some of the largest and most historic churches in the country -- have won the legal right to split from the Episcopal Church and keep their church buildings and property.
A Virginia judge Friday finalized previous rulings, holding that all of the congregations that left the Episcopal Church and formed the Anglican District of Virginia in 2007 could retain their property -- including two prominent churches that date back to the founding of the country: Truro Church in Fairfax, Va., and The Falls Church in Falls Church, Va.
“We welcome these final, favorable rulings in this case,” said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of ADV. “This has been a long process and we are grateful that the court has agreed with us.”
The split from the Episcopal Church came after the Episcopal Church closed the door to congregations questioning the consecration of a practicing homosexual – V. Gene Robinson – as the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire.
Fairfax County Judge Randy Bellows ruled in April that there was a split in the Episcopal Church and that the 11 congregations could invoke a Civil War-era statute in their defense.
Virginia’s Division Statute says that majority rule applies when a division in a denomination or diocese results in the disaffiliation of an organized group of congregations.
In June, Bellows overturned the Episcopal Church’s challenge to the constitutionality of the statute. In Friday’s ruling, the judge affirmed that the statute covered four major church properties whose ownership was still being contested by the Episcopal diocese of Virginia.
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which filed the lawsuit against the departing congregations, plans to appeal the rulings – especially one that upheld the constitutionality of the Division Statute.
"We continue to believe the Division Statute is a violation of the United States and Virginia constitutions because it intrudes into the freedom of the Episcopal Church and other hierarchical churches to organize and govern themselves," Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter James Lee said.
Oakes, meanwhile, said it was gratifying that the court recognized that “the true owner of The Historic Falls Church” is the church’s congregation, not the denomination, and that the building is protected by the Division Statute,” Oakes said. “The Falls Church has held and cared for this property for over 200 years.”
After leaving the Episcopal Church, the 11 ADV congregations affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, or CANA, which is under the direction of Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola and the Church of Nigeria.
CANA Missionary Bishop Martyn Minns Friday called on Lee to reconsider further litigation, calling Bellows’ decision “a great victory for religious freedom.”
“Our position has always been that we have a right to continue to hold dear the same things that our parents and most of the leaders of the Anglican Communion have always believed," Minns trold CNSNews.com Friday. "The Bible is the authoritative word of God and is wholly relevant to all Christians today and for generations to come."
"We hope and pray that the Episcopal Church will refrain from causing all of our congregations to spend more money on further appeals. The money could be used instead to provide more help to the least, the last, and the left out in our communities."
The selection of Robinson in 2003 set off a wide-ranging debate within the church, with conservative congregations saying that the Episcopal Church had abandoned historic doctrines and traditional teachings in a number of key theological issues – including sexuality.
“While on paper this has been a battle about property, the division within our church has been caused by TEC’s decision to walk away from the teaching of the Bible and the unique role of Jesus Christ.,” Minns said.
“They are forging a prodigal path – reinventing Christianity as they go – which takes them away from the values and beliefs of the historical church here in the United States and the worldwide Anglican Communion as a whole.
The origins of the split began in 2006, when eight churches -- Truro, The Falls Church, Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Va.; St. Margaret’s in Woodbridge, Va.; Church of the Word, Gainesville, Va.; St. Stephens, Heathsville, Va.; Christ the Redeemer in Centreville, Va. and Potomac Falls in Sterling, Va. – voted to leave the denomination. Other congregations subsequently joined the exodus.
The 2.1 million member Episcopal Church is the officially recognized U.S. branch of the 77 million member Worldwide Anglican Communion. Earlier this month, however, leaders meeting in Wheaton, Ill., drafted a constitution and founding documents for a new officially recognized Anglican body in the U.S. – the Anglican Church in North America.