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Falls Church, by the numbers

The years-long property battle between Virginia's Episcopal Diocese and congregations that departed from it looks to be about settled. As anyone who has been following can attest, the Episcopal Church and the congregations that have departed from it have been engaged in some epic legal battles. I wrote about one angle in this fight a few months ago for the Wall Street Journal Houses of Worship column. That piece began:

When the Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, N.Y., left the Episcopal Church over disagreements about what the Bible says about sexuality, the congregation offered to pay for the building in which it worshiped. In return the Episcopal Church sued to seize the building, then sold it for a fraction of the price to someone who turned it into a mosque.

While I was researching that piece, which was about how some congregations that are permitted to buy their buildings (even if they already payed for them once already) must promise to disaffiliate from the Anglican Church, I heard other stories about what happens to the buildings that are taken by the Episcopal Church and its dioceses, always in the name of the Episcopal members in the area. Many are sold or shuttered, unable to keep up with basic maintenance expenses. One was leased to a dog kennel, I was told. Keep that in mind.

The Washington Post reported on the local version of this legal battle. Here in Northern Virginia, some of the congregations had been around since before the Episcopal Church even existed. They thought they might have a better claim to the property than some of the hundreds of other congregations in the country that divided or left the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has spent upwards of $22 million in these legal battles in recent years and this Virginia fight was also expensive. But the Episcopal Church prevailed and gets to keep the properties of local congregations that are now affiliated with mainstream Anglican churches in Africa.

The story is headlined "After prolonged legal battle, Virginia Episcopalians prepare to reclaim property." Here's how it begins:

For the past five years, the remaining members of several Episcopal congregations in Northern Virginia have been worshiping in borrowed basements and empty houses while praying to return to the prominent sanctuaries where they married, baptized their children and buried their parents.

Now, after a prolonged and bitter legal battle with former members who broke away and took with them more than $40 million worth of church property, the Episcopal Church and the members who stayed with the denomination are on the verge of taking back their buildings, which include some the faith’s largest, most prominent churches in the region.

The story is very well written and covers the basics of where things are in the legal dispute. Attorneys explain that everyone is operating under the assumption that the congregations need to be prepared to move. We learn a lot about the winning side -- the Falls Church Episcopal folks are planning Easter services and St. Stephen's Episcopal members are planning the prayers they'll say as they march to reclaim their building. The bishop in the area says this is one of the most defining moments in the diocese's 400-year-history. We get a summary of the nature of the dispute and where the departing Episcopalians went, albeit a summary laser-focused on homosexuality as opposed to larger disagreements on Scripture. The legal dispute is summarized with an economy of words (much more challenging than it looks, I assure you!). And we learn that the breakaway folks are now having to account for prayer books, robes, artwork in preparation for leaving their "sprawling complexes" and figuring out what to do with the schools the congregations run.

And while we learn that "the vast majority" went with the departing congregations, I'm kind of surprised how little of that comes through in the story. Take this snippet, for instance:

As the thousands of conservative members prepare to vacate churches where they also have strong ties, members said their relocation plan is taken from a Bible verse that commands: “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Carol Jackson, a lay leader at the Falls Church congregation aligned with the Church of Nigeria, said she and her fellow members are trying to view the court loss through a divine lens.

“We’re all here because God wants us to be. In a secular world those aren’t very wise words, but that’s what we think is true,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal members who had left their old pews after the votes are eagerly anticipating their return to houses of worship that hold special meaning.

“All three of my children were baptized there,” said Deborah Miller, a 59-year-old nurse who joined the original Falls Church congregation in 1982 and stayed with the Episcopal group. “I buried my dad there. We’ve been to funerals of dear friends there. I have shed so many tears in that building, for joy and for sorrow. It’s within the fabric of who we are. It’s a holy place.”

Great quotes and a very nice job of talking to people about the moves they're about to face.

But let's just look at the numbers here. The Episcopal Church reports "Average Sunday Attendance" as a key figure for congregational health. The departing congregation, that has inhabited the large Falls Church complex, reports a church membership of just over 2,000 and probably features an average Sunday attendance of at least that figure. The congregation that will be moving back into Falls Church reports -- after 61 transfers from other Episcopal congregations in the last three years -- a membership of 178 with an average Sunday attendance of 74.

No way around it. That's an attendance of less than 4 percent what the Anglican congregation sees.

Or look at the budgets of the respective congregations. The Falls Church Anglicans reported disbursements of about $6.1 million in 2009. Of that total, just under $800,000 (or 13%) was for building and maintenance alone. Another 13 percent was for general administrative costs, including fixed costs for utilities and salaries for staff and clergy. If you look at page 26 of the Falls Church Episcopal congregation's report, total income was just $233,641. That's less than 4 percent of the Anglican congregation's disbursements. So to just pay for the physical plant they will be taking back over, they'll have to triple their income. And that's before they even begin to pay for clergy or other staff. And that doesn't leave any money for the many activities that are currently being run out of the Falls Church plant.

So here are some journalistic questions. What's the plan here? Are they really going to be able to keep the physical plant running? Is the Diocese going to help them out? How much? Are other congregations going to sponsor them?

And what is going to happen with the schools? The Falls Church Day School is run by the Anglican vestry and I'm assuming it can't be run if separated from its parent congregation. But am I right? What's the plan? Does the diocese have a plan to allow the day schools to keep operating in their current location or what? Are the children going to be kicked out mid-school year? And where will they go? Will the Anglicans be able to keep schools going as they scramble to worship in school gymnasiums?

And another thing I wonder is about another one of the "losing" congregations, Truro. It's a sister congregation to the Falls Church and has a significant physical plant with a large "average Sunday attendance" to support it. When it left the Episcopal Church, I believe the entire congregation left. There is no Episcopal congregation with a competing claim. What will happen to that building? What is the diocese's plan there? I don't even think that's the only one of the "losing" congregations without a competing claim. I believe that is also the situation for Church of the Apostles in Fairfax. So what happens to that building?

If this story were more about the theological battles in play, these questions might be less important. But the whole point of the story is that the remnant congregations with few members are about to take over these huge physical plants that currently serve large congregations and flourishing social ministries. Now, maybe I should just be patient and wait for the follow-up. Maybe this is just the first in a series of stories about what's going to happen. But is Falls Church Episcopal about to be sold to the highest non-Anglican bidder? Will the diocese be in a position to subsidize it heavily?

I'm sure the Diocese thought about these questions when it waged its huge legal battle, but what are the answers? Did journalists ask these questions?

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