Virginia tells secessionists: see you in court

01 February 2007

The diocese of Virginia has lost 14 congregations in recent weeks. Paul Handley visited to find out why

Taking a view: Sarah Bartenstein, a member of the standing committee Diocese of Virginia

Taking a view: Sarah Bartenstein, a member of the standing committee Diocese of Virginia

FOUR HUNDRED YEARS ago, on 14 May 1607, three shiploads of settlers disembarked at a place they named Jamestown, in a region that had been named Virginia a few years before. It was the start of the English settlement in North America. Later that year, a group of the settlers navigated further up the James river to Richmond. It was here that the diocese of Virginia held its 212th annual council last weekend.

The city’s location made it an ideal port for the import of slaves and the export of tobacco. Later, although originally a conservative Unionist town, it became the capital of the Confederacy. The Indian wars, the War of Independence, the Civil War — the city’s history helps to put some of the diocese’s present troubles into perspective.

The story is quickly rehearsed: on 10 December last year, 11 churches, almost all of them in the north of the diocese, near Washington, balloted their members about leaving the diocese of Virginia and joining the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a mission started by the Church of Nigeria. (Two or three had already joined other Africa-linked groups; 14 or 15 out of the diocese’s 190-odd parishes are reckoned to be affected.) On 17 December, the ballots were counted, and the 11 formally announced their departure.

On 18 December, they simultaneously applied to the courts for the ownership of their church property. There has been precedent for this elsewhere in the US, but this was the largest challenge to the national Church. Episcopal Church signboards were taken down, to be replaced by “Anglican” ones. The law firm appointed by CANA wrote to the Bishop of Virginia, the Rt Revd Peter Lee, warning him not to set foot in any of the churches, or he would risk a charge of trespass.


Both sides agreed to a 30-day standstill period. When it expired, on 18 January, the executive council unanimously declared the churches “abandoned” and appointed lawyers to work for their return. The 21 clergy involved were inhibited (i.e. suspended), and the licences of another six were rescinded, with the unanimous support of the diocesan standing committee.

In the next few days, the diocese is expected to file counter-petitions for the return of all buildings and personal property: money, furniture, hymnals, communion silver, and other goods. The case could easily last a year or more. The diocesan budget for professional (i.e. legal) fees was raised from £25,000 to nearly £70,000.

THE PROBLEMS, of course, go back further than 17 December, and stretch far wider than Virginia. The story has been told repeatedly in these pages: how the consecration of Gene Robinson, a gay man with a partner, as Bishop of New Hampshire brought to the boil the dispute about homosexuality that has been simmering for years.

Several Anglican Churches in the southern hemisphere, Nigeria foremost among them, declared themselves to be out of communion with the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Windsor report reprimanded the Americans, warned the Africans (largely) not to dabble uninvited in others’ jurisdictions, and proposed a covenant that would seal the Communion together more comprehensively. The report has done nothing, so far, about the rancour in the Communion, although a draft Covenant will be unveiled soon.

The Virginia annual council was reminded of the international context of its meeting by the presence of the Rt Revd John Paterson, who was serving as chaplain. He is Bishop of Auckland, and chairs the Anglican Consultative Council. In his opening address, he described the last ACC meeting, where the US and Canada were pressurised to withdraw, as “the unhappiest, most divided meeting I have ever experienced”.

For all that, the annual council was a largely cheerful affair. Sitting round small tables in a vast hotel conference room, the 500-odd representatives from the parishes were determinedly upbeat. The secessionists had gone, and everyone was keen to show the world a unified diocese.

For all that, the annual council was a largely cheerful affair. Sitting round small tables in a vast hotel conference room, the 500-odd representatives from the parishes were determinedly upbeat. The secessionists had gone, and everyone was keen to show the world a unified diocese.

The demonstration of this was at the resolutions committee on Friday night, where representatives thrashed out the wording of two contentious motions. One, about relations with “companion dioceses”, was commuted to support for the remnant in the parishes where the majority have left. The other, which would have introduced a “local option” to allow parishes to decide whether they wanted to conduct same-sex unions or not, was reworked into a request for a commission to look into the matter.


As one representative said afterwards: “It was good: we expressed our support for our gay and lesbian friends, but suggested to the other side that we weren’t going to rub their noses in it.” When the two substitute resolutions came to the floor of the council the following day, they were accepted without debate.

In the same spirit of tidiness, the council elected the Very Revd Shannon Johnston as Bishop Lee’s eventual successor in just three ballots. (Eight had been allowed for. Bishop Lee’s election 20 years earlier had gone to the 11th ballot.) Mr Johnston appears to have been cut from the same cloth as Bishop Lee, and at a press conference afterwards described him as one of his heroes.

Another indication of the council’s mood was the number of standing ovations. These are more common than in the UK, clearly; nevertheless, even American observers were surprised. Representatives applauded Bishop Lee’s pastoral address, in which he said of the departed congregations: “We respect their consciences, but also must respond when people who no longer share our mission seek to leave and take with them property that belongs to all of us and to our grandchildren in the faith.”

They applauded more loudly when it was announced that members of the remnant in four of the churches were present at the council.

But the occasion of the loudest applause indicated that other emotions lay under the surface. The Suffragan Bishop, the Rt Revd David C. Jones, has watched the efforts made by Bishop Lee to keep the diocese together. He has also seen the hate mail that the Bishop has received in response. As a consequence, he was not bothered about going off-message when addressing the council.

“I reject with all my might the notion that our theology has changed. It is outrageous to suggest that we have abandoned our faith.” He accused the secessionists of moving away from the notion of belonging to the Church through baptism in Christ “to an emphasis on adherence to one particular point of view — that development is not Anglican”. There were cheers when he read out a letter of support for Bishop Lee from neighbouring bishops.

Sarah Bartenstein, a member of the diocesan standing committee, spoke afterwards of “a collective sigh of relief” from those present, “not because our brothers and sisters are absent from us, but because we can finally say what needs to be said. It’s not vindictiveness; it’s just that, after trying and trying and being rebuffed, we are able to say that we have done all we could — and that we have other things to attend to.”


Bishop Paterson, as chaplain, gently counselled against the idea that Christians could part easily. He spoke movingly of Maori acts of mercy during the battles with the British army. The Maori word for enemy translates as “angry friend”. It was a valuable intervention. Although there were no official representatives from the departing congregations present (being no longer part of the diocese of Virginia), there were a few on the fringes, observers or visitors to the stand of the American Anglican Council, another conservative body.

On the last day, as the annual council was formally welcoming a former mission church into full parish status, everyone was invited to sing “In Christ alone”. The strongest singing came from Faith McDonnell, standing at the back of the hall on my right, a member of the secessionist Church of the Apostles in Fairfax.

I witnessed another encounter during one of Bishop Paterson’s addresses. A representative spotted Mary Alice Ailes standing near me, a woman from Truro Church in Fairfax. “You here?” the representative mouthed. They embraced. “What can I say?” the representative said quietly. “I just pray that this is the right thing.”

At the front of the hall, Bishop Paterson was quoting from St Paul: “Love one another with mutual affection.”

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