Episcopal Division Widens in Virginia

Article excerpt

Conservative Episcopalians' steady exodus from the Episcopal Church accelerated before Christmas as eight Virginia congregations--including two large, historic parishes--voted to leave the national body.

The Diocese of Virginia has lost 12 congregations and about 15 percent of its average Sunday worship attendance in recent battles over homosexuality and the authority of scripture, according to figures provided by the diocese.

The size of the breakaway parishes, their historical importance and their success at starting new congregations all sent shivers through the Episcopal Church, said influential conservative theologian Kendall Harmon. "This is terribly significant," said Harmon of South Carolina. "When you lose large churches, you don't just lose an individual parish, you lose a great big part of the family."

The fight in Virginia will be closely watched by both sides--by the conservative minority, to see how hard it is to cut ties with the national church, and by church lawyers, who will fight aggressively to maintain control of property.

The eight Virginia congregations announced their decision to leave December 17. Three more were considering similar action. A looming legal scrap will determine if the diocese loses more than $27 million in property as well.

A "saddened" Virginia bishop Peter Lee promised a fight. "As stewards of this historic trust, we fully intend to assert the church's canonical and legal rights over these properties," he said in a statement.

The Virginia congregations have thrust themselves to the front line of a conservative movement in which U.S. parishes are aligning with theological allies in the wider Anglican Communion.

While conservatives are a small part of the 2.2-million-member Episcopal Church, a majority of the world's 37 other Anglican provinces agree with their belief that the Bible trumps cultural accommodations on issues like homosexuality.

Tensions in the U.S. church, mounting since the decision to ordain women three decades ago, exploded after an openly gay man was elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

Since Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supports the consecration of gay bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions, was elected in June, seven dioceses have rejected her authority. …