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VIRGINIA: Lee warns dissenting congregations of separation vote's consequences

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

The Rt. Rev. Peter Lee  

[Episcopal News Service]  Bishop Peter Lee of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has sent a letter to the rectors, vestries and wardens of congregations considering a change in their relationship with the diocese and the Episcopal Church, warning them of the potential legal and canonical consequences of a decision to separate from the Episcopal Church, especially with regard to property and personal liability.

The congregations have engaged in a "40 Days of Discernment" program and some have chosen to conclude that program with votes to determine their future affiliations later this month. The vestries of Truro Church, Fairfax, and The Falls Church, Falls Church, voted November 13 to recommend to their congregations that they sever ties to the Episcopal Church. A number of the others are daughter congregations of Truro Church.

Lee wrote that the purpose of his December 1 letter was "to outline ways forward and potential consequences of decisions."

He told the members of the congregations that they are "cherished member[s] of this diocese whose historic stance is one often described as a ‘generous orthodoxy,' holding together people with different theological emphases within traditional faith and order."

"I pray you will remain in communion with your brothers and sisters in Virginia and take your full place in the life of the Diocese of Virginia," he wrote. "Ours is a faith historically defined by our ability to bring together people with different theological emphases within traditional faith and order."

Lee wrote that any decision to leave the Episcopal Church will be a source of regret for future generations.

"Along with the damaging effects any split would have on the Diocese as a whole and these churches in particular, we are concerned that these congregations may not fully understand the potential legal consequences of their actions," Russell Palmore, chancellor of the Diocese of Virginia, said in a statement on the diocesan website accompanying the release of the letter. "The decision to leave the Diocese should be a fully informed one."

The Falls Church issued a statement December 2 saying Lee's letter "appears to undermine months of hard work and prayerful efforts by his own leadership and our congregations to reach agreement on a civil and charitable process by which our differences might be amicably resolved."

According to two postings (November, December) on the parish's website, the congregation will vote between December 10 and December 16 on "whether our congregation should sever ties with The Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican District of Virginia, part of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA)."

CANA is described on its website as "an Anglican missionary effort in the US sponsored by the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion)." Its missionary bishop is Martyn Minns, Truro's rector since 1991. Minns was elected and consecrated by the bishops of the Anglican Church of Nigeria for the post. Lee refused to allow Minns to continue as rector, but in October licensed him as priest-in-charge of Truro Church until January 1.

The ballot will also include a resolution on "whether the congregation should retain its property, if the majority votes to separate from the denomination and affiliate with CANA."

The website posting tells congregants that a yes vote on this resolution "does mean that you agree that the majority of the congregation should be able to keep its property regardless of whether it severs ties with the denomination" and promises that the congregation's leadership "will seek to act in a biblical manner and to avoid contested litigation with the Diocese."

Truro Church's website also contains a statement expressing "profound disappointment and sadness" with Lee's letter.

That parish is allowing voting on whether to affiliate with CANA between December 10 and December 17.

In the December 2-9 issue of the Truro Family News, posted on the parish's website, Minns tells the congregation that "It is the moment of decision -- don't freeze and don't be afraid. God is already ahead of us and a new day is dawning."

According to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, dioceses are created or dissolved only by acts of General Convention (Articles V and VI) and dioceses create or dissolve Episcopal congregations in their midst. Congregational property is held in trust for the diocese, and the diocese holds property in trust for the wider church (Canon I.7.4 of the Episcopal Church). Canon 15.1 of Virginia's diocesan canons concurs with the national canons.

"I remind you that absent a negotiated settlement of property, an attempt to place your congregation and its real and personal property under the authority of any ecclesial body other than the Diocese of Virginia and the bodies authorized by its canons to hold church property will have repercussions and possible civil liability for individual vestry members," Lee warned in his letter.

Lee also warned priests that they risk being prevented from performing their ministerial duties as Episcopal clergy if they lead their congregations to another entity. His letter tells them that they will be prevented from earning further credited service in the Church Pension Fund, but notes that they can receive an eventual pension based on their years of credited service within the Episcopal Church.

Lee's letter warns vestry members of a case in Pennsylvania in which the court ruled that the vestry of a parish in the Diocese of Pennsylvania which wanted to retain its property but leave the Episcopal Church had breached its fiduciary duties for refusing to maintain the parish's property in trust for the diocese. The court held the vestry liable for the legal expenses of the diocese and bishop. Lee said Virginia state law contains provisions similar to Pennsylvania's and thus the ruling is "consistent with what a Virginia court would do if faced with a similar case."

The complete text of Lee's letter is available here.

The Diocese of Virginia comprises about 90,000 Episcopalians worshipping in 195 congregations