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Virginia bishop vows to care for remaining Episcopalians, assert rights to departing congregations' property
Presiding Bishop says 'quick fix' of departing is not ultimate solution

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

Bishop Peter Lee  

[Episcopal News Service]  Bishop Peter Lee of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia said December 17 that he was saddened by the fact that, as of that afternoon, Nigerian and Ugandan congregations were "occupying Episcopal churches."

Lee's statement came as eight of Virginia's 195 congregations announced that their members had voted to sever ties with the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican Church of Uganda or the Anglican Church of Nigeria by way of the Anglican District of Virginia, part of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). The members of the eight congregations amount to about 8,000 of the diocese's roughly 90,000 Episcopalians.

The Episcopal Church includes some 7,200 congregations in its 100 domestic dioceses, and about 150 in its 10 overseas dioceses and one convocation.

The full text of Lee's statement is available here.

"We are saddened when individuals decide they must leave the Episcopal Church, for we are diminished when any brother or sister departs from the community," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said in reply to a reporter's inquiry late last week.

"We live in a time and a society that is easily drawn to polarities. These departures are taking place in most mainline denominations, and are an expression of the anxiety of our times and the discomfort many people feel in trying to live in tension. Anglicanism has always held that living in the tension of comprehensiveness is our vocation. God gives us a gift in the midst of that diversity, and we more fully know both truth and God's will for us when we are able to embrace that diversity. The quick fix embraced in drawing lines or in departing is not going to be an ultimate solution for our discomfort."

The Associated Press reported that the vote margins were 90 percent at The Falls Church, Falls Church and 92 percent at Truro Church, Fairfax.

Lee said he will convene a joint meeting of the diocese's Executive Board and Standing Committee of the Diocese, with legal representation, on December 18 "to consider the full range of pastoral, canonical and legal obligations of the Church and our responsibilities to those faithful Episcopalians in these congregations who do not choose to associate with the Church of Nigeria."

In the meantime, Lee said, he has asked the leaders of "these now Nigerian and Ugandan congregations occupying Episcopal churches to keep the spiritual needs of all concerned uppermost in their minds at this difficult moment in our Church history, especially continuing Episcopalians."

He said that he will direct diocesan personnel to work with departing members and those who remain loyal to the Episcopal Church to work out agreements about sharing congregational property until those disputes can be settled.

"Our polity maintains that all real and personal property is held in trust for The Episcopal Church and the Diocese," Lee continued. "As stewards of this historic trust, we fully intend to assert the Church's canonical and legal rights over these properties."

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.

Patrick Getlein, secretary of the diocese, said the congregations that were due to announce their vote tallies on December 17  are Church of the Apostles, Fairfax; Church of the Word, Gainesville; Potomac Falls Episcopal Church, Sterling; St. Margaret's, Woodbridge; St. Stephen's, Heathsville; St. Paul's, Haymarket; The Falls Church, Falls Church; and Truro Church, Fairfax.
Four Virginia congregations had previously announced their disaffiliation with the diocese, according to Getlein. They are All Saints, Dale City; Christ Our Lord Anglican Church, Lake Ridge; Church of the Holy Spirit, Ashburn; and South Riding Episcopal Church, Fairfax.

Two other congregations have announced their intentions to put Episcopal membership to a future vote, Getlein said. They are Church of the Epiphany, Herndon, and Our Saviour, Oatlands.