Following the U.S. Episcopal Church (part of the Anglican Communion) deciding to endorse homosexual activity and, in the process, abandon the Bible as guiding document of the church, eleven Episcopal congregations in Virginia voted (by membership majority) to leave the U.S. Episcopal Church and align themselves with a more Biblical Anglican group, the Congregation of Anglicans in North America (CANA).
While not challenging the right of a congregation to leave the denomination by majority vote if it chooses, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has chosen to try and exert property ownership over the eleven church properties in question and, essentially, evict the breakaway church congregations. This created an interesting legal conundrum—the deeds of the properties are held in trust by the Board of Trustees of the individual church (which seceded), but the trust beneficiary is the diocese and the diocese retains ownership by denomination policy in the event of a congregational secession.
This is definitely going to be a legal mess, and it will be a similar mess in some other denominations with this ownership structure (like my own United Methodist church) if we continue to have major denominational schisms in Christianity.
According to the Associated Press (via WTOPNews.com), a Fairfax County judge has issued a preliminary ruling in this case which favors the breakaway congregations. Under the Code of Virginia §57-9, which the judge has ruled applies in this case, individual churches are given the authority (by majority vote of the members) to choose which denomination they are to belong to in the event of a denominational division. This so-called ‘division statute’, which was put on the books in Civil War times when church denominations were dividing left-and-right over the issue of slavery, the congregation gets to take its property with it to whatever part of the divided denomination it chooses.
The ruling does not address the constitutionality of the division statute (I have some question about that . . . ), nor does it address the core issue of whether the trust that holds the property answers to the congregation or the diocese. Either way, this brings to light an interesting little nuance that I had not been aware of previously. With the division statute in the mix, there’s a curious possible outcome that the diocese technically owns the property, but loses it to the individual congregations anyway under a 150-year-old law.
Of course, this whole issue could disappear overnight if the U.S. Episcopal Church would simply acknowledge its gross errors in Biblical interpretation, repent, and reconcile with the churches that have joined CANA who simply want to be a part of an Anglican denomination that doesn’t blatently disregard the teachings of scripture. God-forbid!
As a Christian, I am watching this closely. The trail being blazed by the breakaway Episcopal churches may well be the trail that other churches are forced to follow as more of the ‘mainline’ denominations abandon their core teachings to follow the ways of the world.