Church of the Word

Date: April 19, 2011

Contact: Rev. Robin Adams
Phone: (703) 754-9673

GAINESVILLE, VA – Church of the Word (COTW), one of a handful of Northern Virginia churches embroiled in a four-year long lawsuit with The Episcopal Church (TEC), will retain its church property after an out-of-court settlement signed Monday, April 18, released it from the pending litigation.

The leadership of COTW, which is a multiracial congregation made up of predominantly young families, is relieved to have achieved their major goals of separating from TEC, retaining their property, and preserving their tradition of worship and ministry.

Church of the Word is one of a number of formerly Episcopal congregations that had severed ties with the denomination over matters of doctrinal drift and novel pastoral practices. Upon breaking away from the denomination in December 2006, TEC filed a lawsuit against eleven Northern Virginia churches in an attempt to keep them from retaining their property. Currently, the next phase of this litigation will continue for the remaining seven churches with the commencement of a late-April 2011 trial in the Fairfax County, Virginia, Circuit Court.

COTW’s settlement allows it to keep its property, and now free of litigation, may concentrate on its vision, which is to ‘Encounter and Share Jesus Christ’. It does, however, require that COTW sever its affiliation with the newly established Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), and the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) for a period of five years.

COTW’s pastor, Rev. Robin Adams said, “This settlement allows us to keep the church building that was paid for by us, not the Episcopal Church. It also allows us to put this painful experience behind us and move on with ministering the love of Christ to a broken world. We will not lose our Anglican identity, though we may have to rethink how we do church in the short term.

Adams said the requirement to temporally disaffiliate from ACNA is one of the more difficult aspects of the settlement, but he remains positive.

“Our goal is to return to the ACNA fold when the disaffiliation period is completed as a stronger Christian body,” he said. “We’ll continue to worship in our accustomed manner, and for most of our members, this provision will not even be something they’ll notice in our day-to-day church ministry.”

Adams called the disaffiliation requirement “a failure to ‘respect the dignity of every human being,’ as the baptismal covenant says, and is certainly unchristian.”

“It is heartbreaking that The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia were unwilling to explore out of court settlement options with Church of the Word unless it severed all ties to its orthodox Anglican family,” ADV Chairman Jim Oakes said. “Church of the Word and all within the ADV have been seeking the Lord in prayer as we search for the best path forward. In spite of the separation mandate, we support the members of Church of the Word and they will remain our dear brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Church of the Word has believed all along that its property belonged to those who paid for it – the local congregation. The Episcopal Church, on the other hand, believes that all church assets within the denomination are held in trust for the national church, regardless of state property laws. An earlier court decision sided with the breakaway churches, but was then reversed upon appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. The suit was returned to the circuit court for re-trial based on a different body of law in June 2010.

“We originally voted to leave the Episcopal Church in 2006 over theological and pastoral issue,” COTW’s former senior warden Dane Swenson said. “We felt the denomination had drifted away from basic Christian belief and practices. For example, Anglicans are supposed to hold that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life, as opposed to just another possible option among many. And we believe that the Bible is the guiding authority for Christian doctrine, and must not be subservient to or shaped by the culture of the moment.”

Initially the denomination had provided a process by which the congregations could leave the denomination and maintain ownership of the properties they had purchased and maintained.

“Had the Diocese of Virginia stuck to its original agreement in its official ‘Protocol for Departing Congregations,’ then four years of expensive legal action could have been avoided,” Adams said. “Nevertheless we are thankful to have reached settlement with the diocese today.”

While Church of the Word is relieved to be able to keep its property, the congregation actually outgrew its facility long ago and has had to put building plans on hold during the years of uncertainty due to the litigation. Robin Adams says the church will develop its modest site to the best of its abilities, and will refocus on planning for the future.

“Any financial resources we might have saved toward expanding went toward our legal fees in this case,” COTW treasurer Robert Miller said. “Maybe there are people out there who think our stand against biblical compromise was worth the cost. Maybe they’ll help us raise the funds we need. You never know how God will work.”

With faith that God will supply the church’s need, Adams says it will establish a fund for anyone who might like to donate. He’s hoping like-minded friends still in the Episcopal Church might pledge a gift to help Church of the Word, even while they work for reform within that body.

“You never know unless you make your needs known,” Adams says.

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