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US Episcopalians begin legal battle linked to gay clergy fight

The US Episcopal Church’s diocese of Virginia is preparing for an all-out legal battle over the ownership of the property in 11 parishes that broke away from the denomination over its tolerance of homosexual clergy. The case involves two of the oldest, largest and most prominent parishes in Virginia and pits church members against the diocese in a struggle over property valued at about US$25 million.

In December, members of the 11 parishes, including the historic Truro Church and The Falls Church, where founding US president George Washington once worshipped, voted to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliated themselves with the (Anglican) Church of Nigeria.

The diocese and the parishes, however, agreed to delay legal action for 30 days. That agreement expired on 17 January.

The following day, Bishop Peter Lee and the executive board of the diocese of Virginia declared the land and buildings held by the 11 parishes to be legally "abandoned" and said they would go to court to recover and protect the property.

The denomination’s presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, released a statement on 21 January saying that parishes "cannot unilaterally disestablish themselves or remove themselves from a diocese. By canon law, property of all sorts held by parishes is held and must be used for the mission of the Episcopal Church through diocesan bishops and governing bodies."

She also said the Church of Nigeria has no claim to the property. "Ancient precedent in the Church requires bishops to respect diocesan boundaries, and to refrain from crossing into or acting officially in dioceses other than their own," Jefferts Schori said.

The Episcopal Church has been under pressure since the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson, a divorced father living openly with another man, as a bishop in New Hampshire.

(c) Ecumenical News International