AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
In this next story, people move out, they split up assets. It's like the end of a marriage. But this breakup involves churches in Virginia. Earlier this year, a judge ruled in the case of seven conservative congregations that had split from the Episcopal Church. They were ordered to hand over almost everything they own.
As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, it has been a long and ugly fight.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH BELLS)
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: On a bright Sunday morning in the tiny town of Heathsville, Virginia, Jeffrey Cerar surveys the church he's preached in for the past 15 years; the 130-year-old wooden pews, the stained glass, the Paschal candles, the cross.
REVEREND JEFFREY CERAR: Virtually everything you see here is going to stay. The high altar, the credence table, the hymnals and books of common prayer will all stay. The Bibles will go with us.
HAGERTY: Cerar, who's rector of St. Stephens Anglican Church, is leaving, along with his congregation. They're handing over the keys to their theological rivals, St. Stephens Episcopal Church. Cerar says he'll miss it.
CERAR: It's a beautiful place and when it's full and people are singing, and they do in our congregation, they just raise the roof.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
HAGERTY: In 2006, most of the people here voted to leave the American Episcopal Church after it elevated an openly gay man to be a bishop. They decided to affiliate with the Anglican Church in Nigeria, which bars gay clergy. They renamed the congregation St. Stephens Anglican Church.
JAN BECKETT: We had two churches in one building.
HAGERTY: Jan Beckett, a conservative parishioner, says the liberals and conservatives tried to stay together. But at some point, the rift became too wide.
BECKETT: And we were beginning to experience that tension, not that it was something you talk about it, you just knew it was there.
REVEREND LUCIA LLOYD: In some ways, it's like a divorce.
HAGERTY: Lucia Lloyd is the rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.
LLOYD: We never wanted this split to happen and would have done anything to prevent it from happening.
HAGERTY: After the vote, she says, about three dozen of the more liberal parishioners left. Ninety-three-year-old Meade Kilduff was one of them. She says the split was traumatic.
MEADE KILDUFF: And my head was going around and around. And I thought, well this is a good time for me to get a stroke.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KILDUFF: And I got home, and just got on the bed and just cried and cried and cried.
HAGERTY: They restarted St. Stephens Episcopal Church down the street, and sued to get their old church back.
LLOYD: So this was the living room and this was the dining room. And we've set up the altar in the corner there...
HAGERTY: Lucia Lloyd shows off the rented house that has served as their makeshift church for the past few years. A dresser serves as the altar, a pillow case as the altar cover, a keyboard replaces the organ.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
HAGERTY: This is one of their final services here. In January, after a bitter five-year legal battle, a judge ruled that the Episcopal Church owns St. Stephens and that they can go home.
ELLEN KIRBY: I have mixed emotions, more sadness than happiness.
HAGERTY: Parishioner Ellen Kirby says the legal judgment is a victory and a tragedy.
KIRBY: We're a small community. We see each other all the time at the post office or the grocery store. And we know the hurt and what it feels like to be out of a church and a space that you love.
HAGERTY: Virginia is the epicenter of the Episcopal schism. Heathsville is one of seven churches, including two of the largest and most historic churches in the country, that broke away from the denomination in 2006. Now that they have lost their lawsuit, they all have to find new homes.
(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)
HAGERTY: Among them, Church of the Apostles in Fairfax.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't you want to lift it on the dolly and roll it out?
HAGERTY: A half dozen men wrestle with a 360-pound cross, panting as they remove it from its moorings in the sanctuary. Now, says parishioner Wayne Marsh, the cross is going into storage and the church is being shuttered.
WAYNE MARSH: It's sad and heartbreaking, and it's a tremendous loss. But God has just given me a peace to understand this is his will and we're going forward with it, not knowing exactly where we're going.
HAGERTY: But underneath all these gentle words is an acrimonious history. Here's David Harper, rector of Church of the Apostles.
REVEREND DAVID HARPER: The Episcopal Church has developed a scorched Earth policy.
HAGERTY: Harper says in late 2006, when the seven churches decided to leave, they worked closely with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to do what had been done in other states - figure out a way to stay out of court and pay the diocese to stay in their church. But one day, Harper says, the negotiations fell apart and he says the Virginia bishop told him...
HARPER: There's a new sheriff in town.
BISHOP KATHARINE JEFFERTS SCHORI: I wouldn't call myself a sheriff.
HAGERTY: That's Katharine Jefferts Schori. She had just become presiding bishop of the National Episcopal Church at that time and she told the Diocese of Virginia to stop negotiating.
SCHORI: The reality is that the intensity of the conflict escalated after I was elected. And it was clear that several bishops were attempting to lead dioceses out of the church, and it was time for a church-wide policy.
HAGERTY: Within weeks, the Diocese of Virginia and the National Episcopal Church sued the Anglican Churches. Initially, the judge in the case ruled in favor of the breakaway churches. But after being reversed on appeal, he awarded almost everything to the Episcopal Diocese.
HARPER: When I got the news, I felt as though the stuffing had been knocked out of me.
HAGERTY: Now, says David Harper, his church owes the Virginia Diocese about a million dollars that was in its bank account in 2007. It has to hand over the land it bought to build a new sanctuary in the future. And, of course, it's relinquishing the building itself, which he estimates is worth more than $5 million. But unlike the situation in Heathsville, Harper says, there is no congregation to take its place.
HARPER: I don't know what the diocese will do with the property, but we do not have a shadow congregation. There's no group from Church of the Apostles that want to come back and gratefully re-enter the building.
HAGERTY: So it will probably be sold, with the money going to the diocese. In recent years, breakaway church properties have been sold to Baptists, Presbyterians, Jews. One church in New York was sold to an Islamic Awareness Center. The only people who cannot buy the buildings, Katharine Jefferts Schori says, are the Anglicans.
SCHORI: I've had two principles throughout this. One, that the church received a reasonable approximation of the fair market value for assets that are disposed of. And second, that we not be in the business of setting up competitors that want to either destroy or replace the Episcopal Church.
HAGERTY: Henry Burt, chief of staff of the Diocese of Virginia, concedes that this internal warfare is not the best example of Christian love.
HENRY BURT: I don't know if unseemly is a word I would use, but it is regrettable. It's also regrettably necessary. The diocese has had very little choice, frankly, as we've moved along this path.
HAGERTY: Asked if he thinks the Episcopal Church's victory is evidence of divine favor, Burt pauses.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BURT: I think God is on everyone's side in this, but he may be a bit disappointed.
HAGERTY: Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.