From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Conservative Virginia parish opts to stay in the Episcopal Church

Date Wed, 12 Dec 2001 10:16:12 -0500 (EST)


Conservative Virginia parish opts to stay in the Episcopal Church

by Nancy Jenkins

     (ENS) The theologically conservative Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, 
Virginia, has decided to remain a part of the Episcopal Church after a long and 
careful discernment process. The need for a decisive stand was forced by the 
imminent construction of an expansive new campus for the congregation, which is 
located in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

     Canon 15.3 of the diocesan Constitution and Canons states that a 
congregation holds its property in trust for the diocese and that, if the 
congregation were to sever its ties with the diocese, the property would be in 
the custody of the diocese.

     For some congregations, the canon may simple be legal words in a dusty book, 
but to the vestry of Church of the Apostles, it had potentially serious 
implications. Began as a church plant of Truro Church in 1968, Apostles is now 
preparing for a $9 million capital campaign to build a new campus.

     Because the congregation stands at the far conservative end of the Episcopal 
theological spectrum, some decisions made by General Convention over the past 10 
years led them to question the congregation's ability to remain a part of the 
Episcopal Church. Knowing that they would forfeit their church property if they 
ever did leave the diocese, the congregation became increasingly concerned as the 
time drew near to launch the campaign.

Should we stay or should we go?

     The vestry decided it was time to take a serious, prayerful look its place 
in the Episcopal Church. The church's clergy, David Harper and Neal Brown, firmly 
believe that Apostles' place is within the Episcopal Church. The vestry was 
determined to follow their clergy's leadership, but wanted to find peace about an 
issue which had haunted them for many years.

     About a year ago, the vestry began meeting more frequently to pray, study 
the Bible, and consider its position. Did the vestry believe that Apostles 
belonged in the Episcopal Church, or belong elsewhere, perhaps in a breakaway 
group like the Anglican Mission in America?

     The vestry tackled the issue on both a spiritual and intellectual level, 
even studying the history of other religious controversies. "We took a look at 
the history of the Protestant Reformation and the fact that there are 
subsequently 20,000 or more denominations, and we thought how that must grieve 
the Lord," said senior warden Richard Nelson. "All of these [denominations] were 
made with good intent but they were fractionalizing nonetheless. We just felt 
that we didn't want to do that." After months of prayer and study, the members of 
the vestry came to an unanimous decision. In the end, it was not an intellectual 
decision, says Nelson, but rather "a powerful impression ... that the Holy Spirit 
was calling us to stay."

'Stay and stand for righteousness'

     The first action of the unified vestry was to write a letter to the rector 
reporting unanimous support for his conviction to stay in the Episcopal Church. 
Then, during Sunday services on September 2, the vestry distributed to the entire 
congregation a proclamation titled "Staying and Standing for Righteousness." In 
the third paragraph, the letter states, "We joyously report to you that God has 
done a mighty miracle in the vestry to bring us into a place of unity and 
agreement to stay and stand for righteousness within our denomination."

     The vestry described many of the factors which convinced it that staying was 
the right thing to do. "As we examined scripture, most references were 
exhortations to stand up to and to expose false teachers," the letter said. They 
listed several examples: "David submitted to King Saul even after David had been 
promised the kingdom; Elijah and Jeremiah remained faithful to God despite abuse 
by their evil kings and church leaders; Jesus submitted to the Pharisees, and 
Jewish leaders even to accept death at their hands; and Matthew 10 describes the 
suffering believers can expect when they stand for righteousness and endure 

     The vestry was also moved by clergy accounts of many positive experiences 
working on diocesan and international committees. With regard to diocesan 
leadership, the vestry member stated, "We are reassured that there are still many 
faithful bishops and priests in ECUSA, whose dioceses and churches are generally 
the ones experiencing growth. The Diocese of Virginia, the second-largest in the 
country, is one of these."

A cloud removed

     But does a letter from the vestry really change anything in the minds of 
hundreds of individuals in the congregation? Apparently so. Nelson says it has 
"removed a cloud" that had been hanging over the congregation for many years and 
the result has been "an incredible surge in community.... We had a congregational 
picnic in our new property in October and the turnout was amazing--probably 400 
or so... After September 11, we participated in the Wash America car wash event. 
We had a phenomenal turnout and raised $8,000 in one day."

     The extent to which the letter cleared the air was perhaps most evident on 
Sunday, November 4 when Apostles had its annual bishop's visitation. When it came 
time for Bishop Suffragan David Jones to confirm and receive members, he 
spontaneously opened the service up to anyone who wished to come forward. The 
result was that 22 were confirmed, 88 reaffirmed, 54 received and 164 asked the 
bishop to pray over them. In this moment, it seemed clear that the congregation 
had enthusiastically answered the vestry's call to "join with us in trusting God to pour 
out his blessings from heaven as we give obediently, being neither worried nor 
anxious about ECUSA--or anything else."

--Nancy Jenkins is editor of the Virginia Episcopalian. 

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