March 15, 2014

A Tale of Two Litigants

Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari in the case of Falls Church v. Protestant Episcopal Church. The effect is to make the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, not the breakaway congregation of The Falls Church Anglican, the owner of the substantial property of The Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia.

The Falls Church
The Falls Chuch
As might be expected, litigants on both sides issued statements offering commentary on the Supreme Court’s action.

The diocese first issued a brief statement acknowledging the decision of the Supreme Court. It was titled “Supreme Court of the United States Denies CANA Congregation’s Petition for Appeal”:
Today, over seven years after congregations of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America entered into litigation with the Diocese of Virginia, the Supreme Court of the United States ended the final lawsuit by denying The Falls Church CANA’s petition for certiorari. The decision, in effect, affirms the Supreme Court of Virginia’s ruling in favor of the Diocese in June 2013. The CANA congregation had filed a petition on Oct. 9, 2013, appealing the state court decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We are most gratified by the Supreme Court’s ruling,” said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia.“We look forward to the possibilities that the months ahead will bring, and continue to keep those affected by the litigation in our prayers.”

“Although it breaks my heart to think of where all that money and energy could have gone, today’s news is uplifting for our congregation,” said the Rev. John Ohmer, rector of The Falls Church Episcopal.“My hope and prayer is that all sides can now continue to grow their communities of worship, ministries and outreach in our church homes.”
Bishop Johnston followed up with a letter to the “diocesan family”:
Today is an important day for our Diocese. We finally can say, with great thankfulness, that the Diocese of Virginia no longer is involved in property litigation. The U.S. Supreme Court has denied the Falls Church CANA’s petition. That means The Falls Church Episcopal is free to continue to worship and grow in its home church buildings.

Although today marks an official and much anticipated end to the litigation, it also marks a beginning. We will now be able to focus fully our attentions on the many truly exciting ministries all over our Diocese. I pray that those in the CANA congregations will join us in turning this fresh page.

It is most appropriate that this decision comes at this time, following January’s Annual Council, where we gathered under the theme, “Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve.” In the spirit of renewal I have felt all over the Diocese, I invite you to join me and your brothers and sisters in 182 congregations as we explore new ways to awake our collective souls; as we take a fresh look at our shared ministries; as we stretch every nerve, beyond our comfort zones; and as we breathe new life into the mission we do together in the name of Jesus Christ.

Our Dayspring team already has been making great headway in identifying sources of renewed energy and vision involving those properties that have been returned to us as a result of the litigation. I have no doubt that this spirit of renewal will be enhanced by today’s decision. Please join us on this missional journey that will stretch and inspire us as we find new ways to connect our faith community to the needs of the world.

On this special day, I would like to recognize the clergy and lay leaders of The Falls Church Episcopal, a congregation that has continued to grow in love throughout this prolonged legal process. As always, our prayers remain with all of those affected by the litigation—brothers and sisters who now have the precious opportunity for a new beginning.
The rector of The Falls Church Anglican, the Rev. John Yates, and the senior and junior wardens sent this letter to church members via Constant Contact:
We received word today that the United States Supreme Court has denied our church’s petition for certiorari and declined to hear our case. This means that the long legal process in which our church has been involved since we were sued by The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in 2007 has come to its end.

We have pursued this legal process out of the conviction that it is one of the ministries that God has entrusted to our church and out of our desire to be faithful to God’s calling to see it through to the end.  We are grateful that our nation’s civil justice system allows us this recourse and we thank the Supreme Court for its consideration of our petition.

We will keep praying for the many churches and dioceses that remain embroiled in lawsuits over their property with The Episcopal Church or other denominations. We will continue to pray for clarification of this area of law, which has become increasing convoluted and confusing for the lower courts since the Supreme Court last addressed it in 1979.

Although we hoped and prayed for a different outcome, we know that God is good, loving, and faithful. We have seen this on vibrant display in so many ways in our life together during these years, and we will continue to trust that He has even better things for us. The legal process may be finished, but in the end only God’s judgment is final and only God’s judgment matters. Our prayer has always been that God would be pleased with us for fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith. (2 Tim. 4:7)

We move forward into this next season in our life together with great excitement and anticipation-and without regret. By God’s grace and fully relying on His good providence, we’ll energetically pursue all of the other ministries that God has entrusted to our church:

  • We will continue to faithfully preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-25)
  • We will continue to share God’s love with our community and with the world.
  • We will continue to plant daughter churches in our communities and beyond.
  • We will continue with our ministries of worship, outreach, discipleship, youth ministry, healing prayer, and so many others.
  • We will re-double our efforts to pray and pursue a new church home, trusting that God’s good plans for us are exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.
May God be glorified in all these efforts.
What we see in common in these two personal communications is an intention to get on with the work of the Church, given that the season of litigation has run its course. The tone of the two letters is quite different, however, and not simply because one side one and one side lost.

Surely Bishop Johnston must believe that justice was served, but he doesn’t gloat over the outcome, credit the diocese for its steadfastness, or claim that God either approved of or mandated the final result. At least obliquely, he acknowledges concern for those on the other side. Most of his letter. however, is about moving on.

By contrast, only at the very end of their letter do the leaders of The Falls Church Anglican address the future of the congregation, and they exhibit no concern for the Episcopalian brothers and sisters they left behind. Of course, such a letter needs to acknowledge the final reversal and offer some explanation for the pursuit of a different outcome. One might have expected some elaboration on this basic message:
The United States Supreme Court today denied certiorari in our appeal to reverse the decision of the Virginia Supreme Court in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. We pursued legal remedies as tenaciously as we did because we believed our cause to be just and our prospects of success good, or at least reasonable. Our legal efforts to retain our parish property have come to naught, however, and it is time to move on.
Additionally, an apology for expending so much money and effort in pursuit of a losing cause might have been expected. Instead, the Rev. John Yates and his wardens insist that their quixotic legal odyssey was a God-given mission. Despite recent events, they declare their belief that God would be pleased by their “fighting the good fight” and that God has “better things for us.” They bear responsibility only for obeying the will of God.

Most remarkably, the parish leaders announce that they “will keep praying for the many churches and dioceses that remain embroiled in lawsuits over their property with The Episcopal Church or other denominations.” This, of course, is a clear indication that they have learned nothing from their own experience or that of the myriad disgruntled conservative Christians who repeated have been rebuffed by courts across the country.

Perhaps God has sent a message to The Falls Church Anglican. If not God, then surely the legal system of the United States has. Alas, the rector and wardens of The Falls Church Anglican are not listening.


  1. "Perhaps God has sent a message to The Falls Church Anglican. If not God, then surely the legal system of the United States has."

    Clearly. Just like the courts in Texas have done so to the rump TEC group masquerading around as the Diocese of Fort Worth the last five or so.

    1. It’s all over in Virginia. The Fort Worth case is far from settled. (As Ogden Nash once said, “ Don't count your boobies until they are hatched.”)


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