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Suing For Intimidation?

Severed Episcopal churches see recent action to add volunteers to defendant list in lawsuits as ‘frivolous.’

Business might look usual at Truro Church, but its vestry members are experiencing some behind-the-scenes legal trouble brought on by the Diocese of Virginia.

Truro Church, along with several other churches in Northern Virginia, split off from the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Diocese last December and joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, or CANA— an Anglican missionary effort sponsored by the Church of Nigeria. The split came after the consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, followed by Episcopal actions that more orthodox believers saw as shifts from scripture.

CANA affiliates with the Anglican District of Virginia, or ADV, which includes 14 CANA churches and four churches affiliated with the Church of Uganda. Presently, the district has about 6,000 members.

The split has created tension between the CANA and the Episcopalians, especially over who owns the property rights at the former Episcopal churches. The Diocese recently added the names of volunteer vestry members to its lawsuits against the churches — a move the CANA churches believe is meant for intimidation purposes only.

"The ADV churches think the Diocese and the Episcopal Church have nothing to gain from this action," said Kelly Oliver, spokesperson for the ADV.

When several of the ADV churches initiated a transfer of the ownership of their properties in January, from the Diocese to ADV, the Diocese responded by filing suits claiming its right to the properties. In those suits, some vestry members were specifically named, but many "John Does" and "Jane Does" were listed as placeholder names. That was done because the Diocese knew the names of some, but not all the vestry members, said Patrick Getlein, spokesperson for the Diocese, in an e-mail to the Connection. Now that it has learned more names, the Diocese recently took action to add those specific names to the suits, he said.

Jim Oakes, senior warden of Truro Church, said the notion they didn’t know the names of the members until now is just "silly."

"The only reason I can think of as to why they would do this, is to basically terrorize individuals who might be considering volunteering for service," said Oakes. "We think they’re trying to intimidate us, and also that they’re trying to continue to send messages to churches who haven’t made the decision to sever ties."

The Diocese claims the naming of the volunteers as defendants is a "matter of routine, procedural business," wrote Getlein, in the e-mail. He wrote that since vestry members are the "legal representatives of the congregation," and since they change from year to year, the addition of new names was necessary. He said the action is not meant to intimidate anyone.

"Those elected to vestry service have responsibility for management of church property, and one of the things we seek in our complaint is an accounting of the use of church property," wrote Getlein.

The ADV filed a plea and bar, asking that the suits against the named individuals be dismissed, said Oakes. The judge is expected to rule on that in August. That ruling will not deal with the merits of the property dispute, but just with the naming of the defendants.

"If you look at the history of the Christian faith, I think we always do best when we’re being attacked."

THE JUDGE in the case has asked both sides to work out a compromise in which the individuals can be named, but not added to the complaints yet, said Getlein. The judge would not decide on that until after he has ruled on the plea and bar, said Oakes.

The Diocese believes it owns the rights to the parishes because the congregations that voluntarily chose to sever ties with the Diocese "abandoned the property for the purposes for which it was set aside," according to a Jan. 31 statement from the Diocese.

Peter James Lee, former bishop of the Diocese, said in his Jan. 18 letter to the Diocese, "The differences are not about property but about the legacy we have received for the mission of Christ and our obligation to preserve that legacy for the future … individuals may come and go but parishes continue for generations and generations."

ADV believes it owns the property because trustees are on the deeds. Until a few years ago, churches in Virginia weren’t allowed to incorporate, said Oakes. The properties were, and still are, held in trust for the benefit of the individual church, or congregation, he said. The doctrine under which the Episcopal Church operates is with an implied trust, but Oakes said that isn’t recognized in the state of Virginia.

"It’s a fairness issue," he said. "We raise the money for the congregations; we built them; we have maintained them the entire time. The Diocese and the Episcopal Church never gave us a penny to maintain [the churches]."