Skip to comments.Heathsville, VA: Who Gets Episcopal Property?
Posted on 02/09/2007 5:39:47 PM PST by sionnsar
FREDERICKSBURG -- First, the fight. Then, the separation. Then, lawyers filing papers in court about property.
A religious divorce is under way at a tiny church in the Northern Neck and at 14 other parishes in Virginia that recently voted to split from the Episcopal Church.
Members of St. Stephen's Church in Heathsville say they still speak to each other and occasionally play bridge together. In December, however, a majority of the congregation voted to sever its ties with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and join a new Anglican group headed by an African archbishop.
In Heathsville, the Anglicans have claimed church property and changed the locks on the doors and the signs out front.
Ousted Episcopalians have elected new leaders and now worship with a new Episcopal rector at a Methodist church. Yesterday, the loyalists were cleaning up an old house in the village to serve--temporarily, they hope--as a parish hall.
Both sides say the controversy over church doctrine has strengthened their religious resolve. Both sides say they've received help and encouragement from like-minded supporters far and wide.
But their differences appear irreconcilable and courts will decide who gets the property.
The strife among Episcopalians began in 2003 when a convention approved an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire. Outraged conservatives viewed his selection and other Episcopal practices as violations of biblical tenets.
In December and January, 15 Virginia churches voted to secede from the Episcopal Diocese. The property of the parishes is valued at millions of dollars.
According to Northumberland County records, the real estate of St. Stephen's is worth $779,000. It includes an 1881 chapel, a 1999 parish-hall addition, a 1900 house next door and a cemetery.
The day after its Dec. 17 vote to join the Anglican group, the trustees of St. Stephen's (Anglican) filed a petition in the Northumberland County Circuit Court to declare them the owners of the church's property.
Their claim was made under a Virginia law that allows a judge to award church property to the majority of members voting in a church division. St. Stephen's members voted 99-33 to leave the Episcopal fold.
In their petition, the Anglicans said that none of the deeds to church property had been granted to the Episcopal Church and that neither the church nor the Virginia diocese had contributed to the purchase, building or maintenance of church property.
In response, the Virginia Diocese said it owns the property, not the current trustees of St. Stephen's.
"Principles of charitable trust law preclude the current membership of St. Stephen's Church from diverting that property to another mission of their choosing," the diocese said.
Last week, the diocese, on behalf of the new vestry and trustees of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, filed a suit against St. Stephen's (Anglican) demanding return of the property.
"The real and personal property of St. Stephen's Church must lawfully be used only for the mission of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia," the complaint said.
The suit asked the court to declare the Anglicans to be trespassers, to affirm the diocese's ownership of the property, to prohibit the Anglicans from using the property, to transfer title of the property to the diocese and to order an inventory of all church property.
The diocese filed similar suits against 10 other separatist congregations. Attorneys for St. Stephen's (Anglican) have not yet filed an answer to the suit.
"We are confident that that we will be back in our own church buildings fairly soon," said Sandra Kirtpatrick, senior warden of St. Stephen's Episcopal.
"An inordinate amount of resources will be put in the hands of capable lawyers and, ultimately, perhaps years from now, a final decision will be made at some level in the federal court system," said Ward LeHardy, a spokesman for St. Stephen's (Anglican.)
"It seems such a waste, when all parties are capable of reaching some reasonable settlement of our differences," he said.
THE BREAK: St. Stephen's in Heathsville has joined 14 other Virginia churches in seceding from Episcopal diocese over ordination of gay priest and other practices they think violate biblical tenants.
THE DISPUTE: The secessionists and diocese are now in a court fight over who owns the church property.
AT STAKE: 1881 chapel, 1999 parish-hall addition, 1900 house next door and cemetery. Total value: $779,000.
Below are the 15 churches that have voted to secede from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, assessed real-estate values for some of them, and where the dispute over church property stands. The breakaway churches represent 11 percent of the diocese's baptized membership and 18 percent of its average Sunday attendance of 32,000. In 2006, the 15 churches pledged only $41,000 to the diocesan operating budget of $4.3 million. IN COURT Truro, City of Fairfax, $5 million
Church of the Apostles, City of Fairfax, $2.76 million
The Falls Church, Falls Church, $2.75 million
St. Margaret's, Woodbridge, $1.5 million
Church of the Epiphany, Herndon, $1.1 million
Church of the Word, Gainesville, $973,500
St. Stephen's, Heathsville, $799,000
St. Paul's, Haymarket, $282,000
Christ the Redeemer, Centreville, NA
Church of Our Savior, Loudoun, NA
Potomac Falls Episcopal, Sterling, NA
SETTLED All Saints', Dale City. Leasing church from diocese while new building is built.
Christ our Lord, Lake Ridge. Vacated and abandoned property to diocese.
Church of the Holy Spirit, Ashburn. Mission church with no real estate.
South Riding, Loudoun. Mission church with no real estate.
Is there anything in the church's bylaws?
The church that I attend has a provision in our bylaws about what happens to the property should there ever be a disaffiliation.
Interesting. If your church is TEC, there could be an "interesting" conflict with the Dennis Canon.
Our provincial canons make it very clear; the only ownership the province or diocese is allowed is in the amount of a loan to a mission.
Apostles' property is worth as much as The Falls Church? I did not know that.
Began a long, long time before that...
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