Virginia Parishes Struggle to Sever Episcopal Ties Earlier this month, eight Virginia parishes voted to split from the American Episcopal Church. But severing church ties turns out to be a complicated process that involves money, real estate and -- sometimes -- the courts.
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Virginia Parishes Struggle to Sever Episcopal Ties

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Virginia Parishes Struggle to Sever Episcopal Ties

Virginia Parishes Struggle to Sever Episcopal Ties

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


And I'm Noah Adams.

In a moment a stretch of beach in Southern California is covered with crosses, symbols of fallen U.S. soldiers. In a few minutes we'll hear from the people who have assembled this memorial.

BRAND: First, though, a divorce and its details.

Earlier this month, eight Virginia parishes voted to split from the American Episcopal Church. They were angry over the elevation of the church's first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson. The parishes chose to align themselves, instead, with anti-gay conservative African bishops.

As NPR's Greg Allen reports, severing church ties is a complicated process - it involves money, real estate and sometimes, the courts.

GREG ALLEN: In her Christmas message to Episcopalians, presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said the appearance of the wise men at the birth of Jesus is a reminder that God's love extends to us all, not just for those who expect God's appearing in the same way we do. It's a message of tolerance with particular meaning this year, when a growing number of parishes are moving to sever ties with the National Episcopal Church over its acceptance of gay relationships.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the eight Virginia parishes that voted this month joined about three dozen other parishes across the country that had split from the American church. But voting to disassociate just begins a process that can be lengthy and contentious.

Mr. JIM OAKS (Truro Church): It's a little bit like a divorce after a long marriage that there are a lot of practicalities to be worked out.

ALLEN: Jim Oaks is the head of the lay-vestry board at Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia. Ninety percent of the eligible congregation at Truro voted to leave the American Episcopal Church, and affiliate with a new group called the Convocation of Anglicans in North America.

That group is a missionary initiative of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, a venture that in itself raises concerns among Episcopal leaders, who say it violates rules that forbid one national church from interfering in the affairs of another.

But both for the Truro Parish and the Virginia Diocese, the more immediate question is, who retains control of the church itself?

Mr. OAKS: We feel pretty strongly that that property is ours.

ALLEN: Oaks says the Truro Parish operates a daycare program, a senior center and more than a dozen mission programs that all need facilities.

Mr. OAKS: We built it. We paid for it. Our ancestors paid for it. We have never received a dime of support from the Diocese. In fact, the money has flowed the other way.

ALLEN: Diocesan officials disagree. They cite long-established church law that maintains that all properties held by the Diocese in trust for the National Church.

There is one matter on which the Parish and the Diocese agree - they want to resolve their differences amicably, if possible, without resorting to the courts. That has been done in some instances, but many of the disputes between parishes and Episcopal dioceses have ended up in court.

In Connecticut, California, Florida and New York, Episcopal Dioceses and parishes have filed lawsuits over property disputes. In Virginia, the diocese and the breakaway churches have agreed on a 30-day standstill, during which time, no legal action will be taken while they begin to discuss the division of assets.

The head of the Virginia Dioceses, Bishop Peter Lee, says the separation agreements will be discussed on a case-by-case basis.

In the case of two of the parishes, the Truro Church and the Falls Church, an important factor is history. Both parishes trace their history to a time when Virginia was still a British colony, before there was a National Episcopal Church. And both claimed George Washington was a member of their vestry. For that and other reasons, Bishop Lee says, it would not be easy for the Diocese to part with some of these churches.

Mr. PETER LEE (Bishop, Virginia Diocese): We would be reluctant to give up some of these historic properties; others are for strategic purposes, like one church is the only Episcopal church in the county. There are others that are newer congregations in suburban areas where there are nearby Episcopal churches that loyal people could attend.

ALLEN: In those cases, Bishop Lee says, it will be easier for the Diocese to agree to a settlement that leaves the churches with breakaway parishes.

Bishop Stacey Salz(ph) of Lexington, Kentucky chairs a national task force set up to look at these separation issues. In some ways, he says, the Episcopal Church has faced these issues before. When parishes left the national church because of its decision to ordain women, and when changes were made to the Book of Common Prayer.

Mr. LEE: The phenomenon is not different. I don't know whether the magnitude of the phenomenon is different, but the organization of what's happening is much more highly organized and with an underlying strategy.

ALLEN: That strategy, which has been laid out in memos circulated by conservatives within the American church describes a process for establishing a network of breakaway parishes that would eventually lead to a quote, realignment of Anglicanism on North American soil.

Greg Allen, NPR News.

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