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Virginia court rules against breakaways

16 June 2010

by a staff reporter

THE Supreme Court in Virginia has ruled in favour of the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) and the diocese of Virginia in a battle over ownership of valuable church property.

A lower court in the state had ruled that nine congregations — who left the Episcopal Church and realigned with a province set up by the Church of Nigeria (News, 22 December 2006) — were entitled to keep all parish property.

In a law unique to Virginia, the “division statute” decrees that church buildings belong to the diocese, unless congregations vote to realign with a new “branch” of the Church. The statute dates from the American Civil War, and applies to a division in a Church or religious society.

But the Supreme Court has now overruled the decision of its lower court, stating that the congregations had not affiliated with another “branch” of the Episcopal Church or the diocese.

The congregations left the Epis­copal Church in protest at decisions over same-sex blessings and the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire. They realigned with the Convoca­tion of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a branch of the Church of Nigeria, which began in 2005. As they did so, members of the con­gregations filed cases under the division statute in order to take parish property, including valuable church buildings and land, with them.

The Episcopal Church and the diocese fought the claims, asking the courts to rule that the property must be held for the Church’s mission. The two sides wrangled over what constitutes a branch of the Church, as opposed to merely a shared tradition of faith.

Although the realigned congrega­tions had successfully proved there had been a “division” as a result of disagreements, Justice Lawrence L. Koontz Jr this week ruled that “CANA clearly is not a branch of either TEC or the diocese”.

The Bishop of Virginia, the Rt Revd Shannon Johnston, said: “We are extremely grateful for this op­por­tunity to correct a grievous harm. The Episcopal Church has and will continue to stand by its people, its traditions, and its legacy — past and future. We look forward to resolving this matter as quickly as possible, and bringing our faithful brothers and sisters back to their home churches.”

Jim Oakes, the chairman of the CANA Anglican District of Virginia, which is the umbrella organisation for the nine congregations, said that his organisation is “disappointed” with the ruling, and is considering an appeal.

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