(RNS) — Virginia’s Supreme Court sided with the Episcopal Church on June 10 in its dispute with breakaway conservatives over historic and valuable parish property, a partial but important victory for the embattled denomination.
The ruling overturned a lower court’s decision, which had ruled in favor of nine Virginia congregations that broke with the Episcopal Church in 2006 and 2007 over disagreements on homosexuality and the Bible.
The matter is far from settled, however, as the case was remanded to the lower court to decide complex questions of who owns the church buildings. The conservatives have remained on the property, which has been valued in the millions, while the court battle continues.
At issue was a Civil War-era law that allows congregations that are members of a “church or religious society” that later divides to decide which branch to join. After quitting the Episcopal Church several years ago, the nine congregations looked for help overseas, joining the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), which is part of the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
Virginia’s Supreme Court ruled that the Episcopal Church and its Diocese of Virginia has divided, but that CANA is not technically a “branch” of either, since it was founded by the Nigerian church.
Justice Lawrence Koontz wrote, “the statute requires that each branch proceed from the same polity, and not merely a shared tradition of faith.”
The court also ruled that the Anglican Communion — the international fellowship that includes the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Nigeria — has not divided.
Since consecrating its second openly gay bishop last month in Los Angeles, however, Episcopalians have been booted from two Anglican committees and traded barbs with the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion.
Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston hailed Thursday’s ruling, saying it “corrects a grievous harm” and “brings us one important step closer to returning loyal Episcopalians … to their church homes.”
Jim Oakes, chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, an umbrella group for the nine congregations, said “this is not the final chapter in this matter.”
Separately, the California Supreme Court agreed on June 9 to hear an appeal from a conservative church in Orange County that split from the Episcopal Church in 2004 and has been battling to keep its beachfront property ever since.
— Daniel Burke
© 2010 Religion News Service. Used with permission.
Posted June 14, 2010