Falls Church Episcopal celebrates past, looks to future

Episcopal congregation may still face at least one more legal hurdle

Falls Church Episcopal plans to gather in its historic building May to install its new rector and honor its members and ministries of the past, present and future. Photo/Falls Church Episcopal

Falls Church Episcopal plans to gather in its historic building May 15 to install its new rector and honor its members and ministries of the past, present and future.
Photo: Falls Church Episcopal

[Episcopal News Service] When the members of The Falls Church Episcopal formally install their new rector and celebrate their ministry together May 15, it will be just more than a year since they first returned to their historic building, nine months since their rector joined them and five days ahead of what they had hoped would be the last deadline in the parish’s nearly seven-year-old property dispute.

“It will be a night where we give gratitude for the past and we express our excitement about the present and the future [and] the great things that God is doing here,” said the Rev. John Ohmer, Falls Church rector, in an interview.

Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston, who will lead the service, told Episcopal News Service that the celebration and renewal of ministries “holds tremendous significance” for the congregation.

“After returning to their home parish a year ago, the members and leadership of this congregation have invested tremendous energy in their mission and ministry as a congregation. At this service, we will come together to celebrate that renewal and commitment to a very promising future,” he said. “That we can do so in this historic setting, home to so many generations of Episcopalians, is most fitting.”

The Rev. John Ohmer, shown here with 300 rolls of toilet paper meant for a homeless ministry, says he felt called to join the congregation because it “really had a compelling vision for what the Episcopal Church could be again in Falls Church.” Photo: Falls Church Episcopal

The Rev. John Ohmer, shown here with supplies meant for a homeless ministry, says he felt called to join the congregation because it “really had a compelling vision for what the Episcopal Church could be again in Falls Church.” Photo: Falls Church Episcopal

Johnston said Ohmer “brings remarkable vision and spirit” to The Falls Church. Ohmer, the Rev. Cathy Tibbetts, vicar, and the lay leadership of the congregation “are working together to ensure that The Falls Church continues to grow and thrive in its service to Christ,” he added.

Falls Church Episcopal has been moving into its future ever since members of the historic parish in suburban Washington, D.C., voted overwhelmingly in December 2006 to leave the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church in a theological dispute. Those who decided to leave in fact stayed in the Falls Church property and refused to return it to the diocese.

Only 27 of the nearly 2,800 members remained united with the Episcopal Church after the vote. They began meeting in a living room and elected a vestry. Then-Virginia Bishop Peter Lee assigned clergy to the group and soon Falls Church Presbyterian across the street from Episcopal Church property offered them worship space in their loft. The group soon outgrew the loft and moved twice to larger Presbyterian spaces.

“The Presbyterians were absolutely amazing,” said parishioner Matt Rhodes. “We’re still involved with the shared ministry they do with the homeless.”

The average Sunday attendance soon grew to between 80 and 100, and from the beginning, Ohmer said, the Episcopalians “really had a compelling vision for what the Episcopal Church could be again in Falls Church.”

He added that he doubted that any of them expected to spend nearly seven years in a legal dispute over the church property that eventually went to the state Supreme Court. The Falls Church was one of 11 congregations in the diocese in which a majority of members voted to disaffiliate from the diocese and the Episcopal Church. Over the years, all but Falls Church Anglican had settled their property conflicts with the diocese and the church after judicial decisions in favor of the diocese and the church.

After a Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge ordered Falls Church Anglican in March 2012 to return the parish property to the diocese, the Anglicans only agreed to allow the Episcopalians to return to the parish building to celebrate Easter (April 8, 2012).

However, the Anglican congregation soon thereafter appealed to the state Supreme Court and in the meantime asked the Circuit Court to prevent the Episcopalians from returning again until the high court ruled. The Circuit Court refused and the Falls Church Episcopalians returned to their property on May 15, 2012.

On April 18 of this year, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court ruling returning The Falls Church property to the Episcopalians.

The Rev. John Yates, Falls Church Anglican’s rector, told that congregation April 28 that the Supreme Court ruling was an “overwhelming rejection of our arguments” and “reduces our legal options drastically.”

“Unless we can discern that there are further means of appeal which make good sense, then we can say that it is clear – we will not be returning to our old property” or recovering little of the funds that are part of the dispute, he wrote.

And in his weekly message for the week of May 19, available on the Anglican congregation’s website May 15, Yates said: “We have received further confirmation that the courts are not likely to reverse last year’s ruling.” He explained why the congregation’s leaders are “willing to lose our property and move ahead into an uncertain, unclear future.”

Still, Falls Church Anglican has until May 20 to ask the Supreme Court for a rehearing on its decision and a May 10 letter from the congregation’s two wardens and vestry indicated that the church will ask that court to reconsider its ruling. The Anglican congregation’s lawyers told the vestry that the Supreme Court based its ruling “on an argument that had never, in seven years of court proceedings, been presented by the other side” and that they had not been able to address, according to the letter. Thus, the vestry said it will be “filing a short [rehearing] petition with the court in a few days” as it continues its search for a permanent home.

“It was, of course, our hope that they would have decided that it was time to close this long legal chapter, and focus all their finances and energies, and allow us to focus all of our energies, on our ministries,” Ohmer told ENS.

Ohmer said that one of his frustrations is how the long legal process has “falsely convinced” some people that Anglicans and Episcopalians are meant to square off against each other “when in fact where we should all be marshaling our energies is in battling the common enemy we both share: that of rampant consumerism in our culture, and a general sense of meaninglessness, hopelessness, loneliness, and purposelessness.”

“Those are some of the common enemies that both ‘sides’ have,” he said, “to which the Gospel is an alternative, and I am eager to live into the day where they’re able to focus 100 percent of their energies and we are able to focus 100 percent of our energies and resources on our ministries, which are after all the same ministries.”

Ohmer said he spent 13 years as rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Leesburg, Virginia, throwing away any parish profile that came his way, he said, until he saw the one from The Falls Church Episcopal.

“There was something about this lovely, hardworking, patient group of people,” he said. “It’s a compelling story of people who really believe in themselves as a faith community that is loyal to the Episcopal Church, loyal to the Gospel and wants to be good news to the community. They’ve been through a really tough time, exiled from their own property for six, almost seven years.”

Rhodes and his family felt the same way. When the Rev. Michael Pipkin, who was priest-in-charge early after the split, needed back surgery, a priest from the Rhodes’ parish, Christ Church in Alexandria, was among the clergy who covered for him. Rhodes, who lives a mile from The Falls Church, said his family decided to attended one Sunday in 2008 to give the priest some familiar faces in the congregation.

“We never left,” he said.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy, a lot of growth” that Rhodes said comes from being back in the Falls Church property and the sense of looking outward from the church and into the future that Ohmer brought to the parish.

The congregation is discerning how best to be the good news to the community of Falls Church that Ohmer describes, both through outreach ministries such as the homeless ministry with the Presbyterians and through greater use of the church’s buildings. The church opened its doors to support groups, an English as a Second Language class and civic groups looking for meeting and banquet space.

In one case, a predominantly African-American congregation that needed a place to mark its first anniversary contacted Falls Church Episcopal and wound up celebrating in its sanctuary. Ohmer said that during the course of planning, they learned that the congregation’s senior pastor had no office and was running the church out of her car and a local Starbucks. She now rents space at Falls Church Episcopal for a minimal cost, he said.

Ohmer said they are showing that the slogan “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” is “true about the faith community and it’s true about the buildings and grounds.”

“We have a goal that a large percentage of the property is used a large percentage of the time by the wider community,” he said.

The growth in congregants — between 180 and 220 people now attend on an average Sunday — has included former members who “left when they saw what was coming in terms of the split” as well as people who have never been part of Falls Church, people new to the area and other Episcopalians “who came to see what we were all about,” Rhodes said. The Sunday school and youth group are growing as young families join, he added.

On May 15, the parish will officially welcome the latest group of between 30 and 40 newcomers, Ohmer said, calling them “a very strong outward and visible sign of the new energy and life going on here.”

And, while Falls Church Episcopal has been growing and looking outward, and dealing with the protracted legal issues, the parish has had to deal with the aftermath of the split on another more personal level. Families were and still are divided by the decisions of 2006, Ohmer said. In some cases one spouse might attend Falls Church Anglican while the other worships at Falls Church Episcopal.

When pastoral concerns arise in those families, Ohmer said, “those kinds of differences simply go away when it comes to pastoral care; we take care of one another’s families.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.

Comments

  1. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    We can all rejoice the legitimate congregation is back in its historic church and has a fine, new rector who understands the mission of the Church to bring good news and act on it always come first. I predict continued growth and exciting new beginnings for this important Virginia parish.

  2. David Yarbrough says:

    The article is confusing in that it asserts that ASA was over 800 when the remnant congregation was meeting in Presbyterian space, and now it’s between 180 and 220.

    It continues to be unfortunate that TEC refuses to work with congregations and dioceses who can no longer in good conscience be part of the Episcopal Church. An amiable parting settlement is a far more Christian response than ejection and pursuit of assets – and keeps Church resources focused on mission rather than legal fees.

  3. Falls Church Episcopal Liberated by Virginia Supreme Court Decision

    “It’s a compelling story of people who really believe in themselves as a faith community that is loyal to the Episcopal Church, loyal to the Gospel and wants to be good news to the community.”
    The Rev. John Ohmer, Rector, Falls Church Episcopal

    I am in perfect agreement that the church property rightfully belongs to ECUSA. We are, after all, a Nation of Laws, many of which, including the lawful principles of the Founding Documents, were written by Anglicans, who were after all, a substantial majority of signers of those documents. Those who remain faithful to the heritage and doctrine of the Articles of Religion, the Lambeth Quadrilateral, and the 1928 BCP Catechism must surrender their attachment to the historic buildings, often constructed and maintained by their family’s generous tithes, and seek to build new tabernacles of worship.

    And in that statement is my point. The Reverend Ohmer, in his elocution of hierarchy rightly places the “community” and the “Episcopal Church” ahead of the Gospel, even equivocating “loyalty” with “belief and obedience” to God’s Holy Word.

    In Reverend Ohmer’s theology, the Church exists as a kind of sectarian community center, a place where social justice is meted out in boxes of clothing, hot meals, job counseling, friendship and heart-felt advice, all dictated by the métier of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ as a Social Psychologist” and tinged about the edges with the more palatable tenets of Gutierrez’s and Boff’s Liberation Theology.

    Hardy the stuff of our Anglican Founding Fathers, more like the plaintive wails of immigrant EuroAmericans, or the Papist rants of late nineteenth century Roman Catholic social reformers. And I might add, all to the good, for we are commanded to care for the widow, the orphan, the prisoner, even to the oath we must affirm of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

    As I read Reverend Ohmer’s words, however, I hear the vocabulary of a progressive reformer, the compassion of the neighborhood organizer, and the diction of the educated social scientist. I do not hear the call to salvation, the truth told of human weakness and sin, the need to repent and most importantly the clear and unambiguous assertion that “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ by Faith, and not by our own works or deservings.”

    Falls Church Episcopal may now officially join the ranks of Toynbee Hall, Hull House and the thousands of other such institutions which have failed, and continue to fail to relieve, let alone eradicate, poverty, pain, depression and despair. They have however made thousands of educated, progressive and guilt ridden “middle class” men and women volunteers feel good, needed and necessary, if not sufficient, and perpetuated the “Idol” doctrine of humanism as a means to an end. And of the priests and ministers who promulgate such uses of the tabernacles of worship in the pursuit of good? Let it be said, were there no God, they would be the heroes of us all.

    But, as there is a God, only one God; our God, shouldn’t salvation be the goal? Do the humble and meek need to feed, clothed and counseled to be saved? Don’t the scriptures suggest otherwise?

    Justice and the Law have been served. The way of the world triumphs. Get over it, Anglicans. Find a place to pray, and do so. You lost this tabernacle as the chosen people lost the Temple, you didn’t faithfully obey God. At least, you are not lead into apostasy, your flesh is not torn from you by wolves like sheep set upon without a shepherd. Pray not for your ancestor’s building, but for those who prevailed, those who now occupy it. Absolom, oh Absolom!

    + + +

    • Dear Brother in Christ:

      I think you are reading too much into the new rector’s comments. Because he does not implicitly mention bringing people to Christ does not mean that he dismisses that. The Episcopal Church’s polity says that the property belongs to the diocese Jesus finished work of salvation is not in question here. It is the matter of points of view. One is legality, the other is the law of what is “fair” (the means by which I got my way). The Church is after all the people, not the building. I grieve at the funds for ministry and mission wasted on law suits. If one is convinced of one’s righteous obedience to God, then God is able to provide, much like the argument of Gamaliel in the book of Acts. (5:34) Remember: “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

    • Marc Kivel says:

      Dear Friend in Christ,

      Do you believe the 39 Articles of Religion are what Christ Jesus requires of us or are they the doctrinal requirements of quite fallible men seeking common ground in faith? Do you believe that in making fuller use of facilities that they are somehow profaned or that their fuller use is driven by a particular theology which differs from your own? While the poor may always be with us, perhaps we should consider that we are all impoverished, each in our own way, and that our particular poverties are mitigated by Christ through the Holy Spirit working among us and with us in many holy mundane ways. It is possible that as much as some among us have material and physical needs to be met, others of us have a need to serve and to nurture and to make better use of our grace-given gifts: it is in a joyful giving of thanks to God through our sharing of needs and gifts that our poverties are mitigated and we come to see that the Bread of Heaven continues to give eternal life….thoughts?

  4. Richard Angelo says:

    Congratulations and blessings to Falls Church Episcopal!

  5. Grant Carson says:

    State law varies, of course, from state to state. Claiming that TEC was “right” in suing for the property, when FEWER THAN ONE PERCENT of the congregation wished to remain with TEC doesn’t make it right, or universally legal, and certainly not Christian.

    Here in Texas, the matter of TEC vs. the Diocese of Fort Worth has been argued before the Texas Supreme Court. The decision is pending. I think the true Diocese of Fort Worth (ACNA) will win. A most telling argument was raised by one of the justices. He said, “To whom would I go if I wanted to buy the property?” All the deeds are held by Bishop Iker. The General Convention holds no deeds.

    Incidentally, Bishop Iker did the Christian thing. For those few churches who wished to remain TEC, he gave them the deeds. “Go in peace.”

  6. Dustin Henderson says:

    Why does the writer of this article, presumably someone who is familiar with Anglican polity, keep referring to the Episcopalians and the Anglicans as if they were two different and oppositional things. The Episcopalians are the Anglicans. Those who left have removed themselves from the Anglican Communion, plain and simple and aren’t in any substantial way still Anglicans. I would expect a local paper to be free and loose with the nomenclature but not an official Anglican publication like this.

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