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VIRGINIA: Bishop asks for 'unity through diversity'

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

Bishop Peter Lee of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia  

[Episcopal News Service]  Bishop Peter Lee of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia issued a statement December 10, as members of nine congregations began voting on whether to sever ties with the Episcopal Church, saying that his "fervent prayers this day embrace all who will bear the weight and consequences of these decisions."

Members of the congregations are being asked to decide whether or not to affiliate with the Anglican District of Virginia, part of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). Many congregations have left the voting open for a week or more.

All Saints, Dale City, one of the nine, announced on its website December 10 that its members voted 402-6 in favor of disaffiliation with the Episcopal Church.

Lee's statement, sent to the diocese's news service email list, came nine days after he sent a letter to the rectors, vestries and wardens of the congregations 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.

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.

The December 10 statement was headlined "Unity through Diversity." Lee said he was concerned for all involved in the decisions.

"Most especially, I am concerned for those within these congregations whose will is not to leave the Episcopal Church, who will remain Episcopalian and who, with the care and nurturing of all the faithful in the Diocese of Virginia, will form the core of the Episcopal Church in these places as we move forward," he said.

Lee urged those voting to consider the impact that their decision will have "for the saints of the Church who have preceded us and for those who will follow in service to the Lord."

"Christianity, at its best, has always brought different people together in Christ. For centuries the Episcopal Church has held to the historic Anglican heritage of maintaining unity within diversity. That heritage is a holy gift of God which continues today and which we, as stewards, must preserve and defend in our time for the generations to come," Lee said.

According to Patrick Getlein, secretary of the diocese, the congregations that have begun voting on the issue are Church of the Apostles, Fairfax; All Saints, Dale City; Truro Church, Fairfax; The Falls Church, Falls Church; Church of the Word, Gainesville; Church of the Epiphany, Herndon; St. Margaret's, Woodbridge; St. Stephen's, Heathsville and St. Paul's, Haymarket. A number are daughter congregations of Truro Church.

Most of the congregations engaged in a "40 Days of Discernment" program prior to voting. It is not clear if any congregation that engaged in the program has decided not to put its membership in the Episcopal Church to a vote.

Our Saviour, Oatlands, has just begun its "40 Days of Discernment" program, according to Getlein, and has a vote planned for sometime in January.

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.