In an unusual display of courage and decency, the Supreme Court of Virginia has reversed a lower court decision that would have allowed break away Episcopal parishes to abscond with the property of the Episcopal Church USA. The lower court had embarrassingly based its decision on a Virginia Civil War era statute that had been enacted for the specific purpose of allowing pro-slavery Baptist churches - i.e., those that became part of the Southern Baptist Convention - to seize and keep the property of the anti-slavery American Baptist Church.
Apparently, this ruling based on a racist law that ought to be repealed and removed from the Code of Virginia was too much for the usually spineless Supreme Court of Virginia.
The case has been remanded back to the lower court, so the battle will continue, but this ruing is a major blow against the breakaway Episcopal parishes which are aligning themselves under anti-gay extremist bishops in Africa - including Peter Akinola of Nigeria who is rumored to have ordered the massacre of 600 Muslim men, women and children. The Washington Post has details on this development. Here are some highlights:
Virginia's Supreme Court struck a blow to Anglican conservatives Thursday, ruling against nine congregations who split from the Episcopal Church after a series of doctrinal disputes that culminated with the 2003 installation of an openly gay bishop.
At issue are tens of millions of dollars in church property and symbolic momentum for dueling movements in the Anglican Communion.
The unanimous decision by the five-judge panel dismissing a lower court ruling that favored conservatives is not likely to end the dispute for the nine church properties. The panel simply found that a Civil War-era law governing how property is divided when churches split was wrongly applied to the current dispute. The panel sent the parties back to Fairfax County Circuit Court for a second, parallel case that focuses on who owns the properties. The case is expected to be more complex and messy.
Although the legal issues were particular to Virginia, the case has been closely watched by Anglicans worldwide and other faith groups battling over how to interpret Scripture. The Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, has been at odds for decades over everything from the ordination of women to the concept of salvation to more recent disputes about the rights of gays and lesbians to become clergy and marry. Conservatives' push to separate revved up after church leaders voted in 2003 to ordain Gene Robinson, an openly gay New Hampshire priest, as bishop.
Like the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church structure vests title to all church properties in the diocese as opposed to ever changing congregations. To allow the breakaway parishes to steal the diocese property would in effect place the courts in a position of tampering with internal church governance - something all denominations should be against.