Church of the Word

Date: April 19, 2011

For those who want to dig deeper into the background of our story.

BACKGROUND: As you know, Church of the Word (COTW) has been involved in legal proceedings over the last four years with The Episcopal Church (TEC) over ownership of our property at 14215 Lee Highway in Gainesville Virginia. Church of the Word has always believed the property belongs to those who paid for it – our local congregation. Separation from TEC was a theological and pastoral issue, necessitated by the drift away from basic Christian belief and practices in that body. For example Anglicans are supposed to hold that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (as opposed to just another possible way) and that the bible is the guiding authority for Christian doctrine (as opposed to relying on our fallen rational and spiritual faculties which are shaped by the culture of the moment). Defending our property on the other hand was a matter of integrity and social justice. We made the purchase and have faithfully paid the mortgage and looked after the maintenance for the past 15 years.

LOST OPPORTUNITY: Had the Diocese of Virginia (DOV) honored its original agreement in its official ‘protocol for departing congregations’ under the fair-minded chairmanship of the late Russ Palmore, four years of expensive legal action could have been avoided. The original agreement in 2006 with the DOV was that after 30 days of discernment which allowed for input from the diocese and a congregational vote, the DOV would permit congregations to amicably separate if more that 70% of their members decided to do so (Our vote was 96%). Instead, the DOV decided to sue the departing churches at the very last moment while voting was taking place, claiming all rights to their properties. These suits are continuing even now, and COTW would be defending itself in Fairfax court later this month with seven other congregations if not for this settlement. If the DOV leadership thinks they are only acting out of a higher ‘fiduciary responsibility’ then surely that duty would have been better served by an out-of-court settlement, such as the one made with All Saints Church, Dale City, in 2006. As it is, millions of dollars borrowed in the name of parishioners across Virginia are now paying for expensive legal proceedings to prosecute a complicated case that will continue through the appeals process for years to come. Is this good stewardship or even reasonable fiduciary responsibility?

We, like many sensible episcopalians, were disappointed at the failure of leadership in the Diocese of Virginia and TEC at a critical time, when the whole of the Anglican world was looking in our direction for a better way. Bishop Todd Hunter in his recent book, ‘The Accidental Anglican’ quotes from the 1979 book ‘The Spirit of Anglicanism’:

“In order to follow its Lord who became a servant to humanity, the church must be willing to let go its hold on self-serving institutionalism. This is not easy. For churches, like all institutions, are notoriously conservative and self-protective. The inability of the church to give credible evidence of following Christ in this fundamental area is probably the greatest source of people’s contempt and disillusionment with organized religion.”

It is interesting to note that in 2010 TEC has been closing an average of 3 congregations per month and the new Anglican Church in North America has been planting 2 new congregations per week! Locally the Anglican District of Virginia has grown from 15 to 43 congregations in 4 years!

FOUR OBJECTIVES MET: Now due to heroic efforts of our vestry and legal counsel, an out-of-court settlement has been reached with TEC and The Diocese of Virginia. This will preserve our parish's four main objectives. It is time to move on and turn our resources towards building the kingdom of God by sharing the love of Christ with our neighbors.

1) This lawsuit against our church is the direct result of our choice to leave The Episcopal Church. In December 2006 our church members voted by a 96% margin to leave TEC. Our objective in doing this was to be free of the heretical thinking that has taken over that body and to be free of their harmful pastoral practices which were becoming commonplace. Sadly both of these problems have become worse within TEC in the last four years. Our settlement allows us to reach that primary objective of complete separation from TEC.

2) Secondly, we wish to secure unencumbered ownership of the church property, which has been purchased and maintained by our congregation, and to make sure that it remains available to us for continued Christian ministry. The settlement will allow us to achieve this goal.

3) Another goal is to preserve our Anglican heritage, which is a blending of the best elements of evangelical teaching, spirit filled ministry, and liturgical worship. We believe we have done that.

4) Finally, the settlement will allow us to secure the future of our current ministries that use our property daily and give us freedom and flexibility to move ahead with future development plans.

SETTLEMENT TERMS: The settlement terms include a clause requiring temporary disaffiliation with the Anglican District of Virginia (and other Anglican Church in North America bodies) for a period of five years. COTW believes that this provision fails to ‘respect the dignity of every human being’ as the baptismal covenant says, and by any reasonable measure is unchristian. It appeared that this condition could not be mitigated because of the anxiety TEC leadership have about the growing number of congregations departing TEC all across the country. TEC’s policy is one of desperation arising from fear and from prejudice and does not serve its people well. The other major term of our settlement was a large cash payment which will compensate the diocese for the loss of a former contributing parish and meet some of their legal expenses.

NOT TOO LATE FOR JUSTICE: From the beginning, COTW believed that an out-of-court settlement was best for the wider Christian community. We and thoughtful episcopalians believe that the millions of dollars spent on legal fees thus far and continually accruing are unnecessarily wasted. In these hard economic times, these funds could be spent elsewhere if the DOV/TEC leadership would suspend litigation and meet with the congregations for face to face settlement talks. This is something they claimed was happening at their recent January diocesan council, but so far only two of the nine congregations have been approached! The decent thing to do is to begin round table discussions now, with arbitration if necessary. Many faithful members of the diocese thought that this was already taking place. We hope and pray that the example of our out-of-court settlement can be a springboard to wider solutions.

“The bottom line,” says the Rev. Robin Adams, “is that we can finally look to the future and to what the Lord has next for our church. We see this whole unfortunate situation as what Christ called, ‘persecution for righteousness sake.’ Jesus said that if we held firm to what He taught, we’d be persecuted for it. I guess the only surprise is that the persecution comes from the institutional church not the secular world.”

We are, however, grateful that TEC and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia were able to complete a settlement with us and strongly encourage them to initiate conversations with the other churches even at this late hour. It is the right thing to do!

For even more backgound, please read From TEC to Nigeria - Nov 1, 2007

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