Near the end of 2006, I was working on one of my biggest stories of the year: The mass exodus of 11 Episcopal churches from the Diocese of Virginia, the nation’s largest Episcopal diocese.
It was a huge story and it wasn’t completely certain that on that sunny, cold Sunday if all the theologically conservative churches in northern Virginia would decide to leave en mass.
They did and this created headlines for weeks after that. The largest church that left was The Falls Church Episcopal (TFCE), a large complex worth about $24.7 million with its new-ish sanctuary, a historic chapel and cemetery on 5.5 acres right in the middle of the city named after it (and only a few blocks from where I lived). Built in 1734, its vestry included George Washington, who was elected in 1763.
Members voted 1,228 to 127 to leave, which doesn’t reflect the fact that some 2,000 people regularly attended there.
Fast forward five years and it turns out the courts didn’t look too kindly on the 11 churches taking some $40 million worth of property with them. All of that had to be returned to the Episcopal Church, including money in their bank accounts.
The conservatives, now part of the Anglican Church of North America, were officially out on the street.
As for the Falls Church, as former GetReligionista Mollie Hemingway reported in 2012, the Episcopalians who moved back into that facility (see second photo) included 178 members with an average Sunday attendance of 74, which was 4% of what the Anglicans were bringing through the door. How this group was going to pay the mortgage and other bills — roughly $800,000 a year — was never brought up by anyone reporting on them at the time.
From May 2012 to now — seven years — the Falls Church Anglican (TFCA) migrated to various high school gyms and the alike, trying to raise money for a new church. And on Sept. 8 they finally completed a new $23 million building (along with $31 million paid out for an office building already onsite) and moved in.
Being that a lot of media covered this whole affair from the mid-to-late aughts, I expected some headlines about TFCA’s new home.
But there was zip. Nada.
The first I heard of it was in the juicy ecumenism blog by the Institute on Religion & Democracy’s Anglican program director Jeffrey Walton, which provided the most details of any account I’ve seen. I’m drawing out one significant paragraph to stress the hard-news angles here:
While TFCA’s new campus is only one mile south of the historic Falls Church building, the move already does seem strategically significant. The new site is adjacent a booming immigrant populations who populate the church’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. Likewise, the new building is a visible landmark along a well-traveled commuter artery from suburban Fairfax County into Washington, D.C.
That is for sure. That area of Arlington Boulevard where they now sit is Immigrant Central, a fact capitalized upon by the Dar Al Hijrah mosque just down the street from TFCA. There’s a ton of inexpensive apartments along with continuous bus service along that boulevard that makes it a major thoroughfare for recent arrivals to the United States who lack money and transport.
While reporting on the mosque in past years, I wondered why some church didn’t plunk down a sanctuary in the area, as it would get attendees in no time. Now one has.
Other news coverage in religious publications was meager. Christianity Today provided a guest column about the new church, which provided some details about the inaugural service but not a lot of hard news. The Christian Post did a catch-up piece a few days later.
But where was the Washington Post; the area’s major metro newspaper on this story? One month has passed and there’s still nothing out about TFCA. Can’t say the Washington Times nor the Examiner have sent anyone out either, but neither has the three-person religion team the Post has.
At a recent Religion News Association meeting, I asked the one Post reporter there if they were going to cover the story. She hadn’t even known about it.
The last Post piece I see mentioning TFCA is dated March 2014.
I know the Episcopal Church’s membership figures are going through the floor and that most reporters are covering bigger and better stuff, but surely this was a newsworthy story.
Apparently, TFCA’s membership actually grew during its seven-year exile and it planted several congregations during that time. That’s pretty impressive, whether or not you agree with their theology. A lot of credit has to be handed to the church’s rector, the Rev. John Yates, who shepherded the congregation through this ecclesiastical wilderness. He retired this past spring. What did he go through during this time?
But there’s been nothing in the mainstream press. I had to return to the comments on Walton’s blog to learn that the Episcopalians who occupy the historic property have 750 members with some 300 coming on a typical Sunday morning and a $650,000 annual budget. They’re renting out the main building to a black congregation, which is how I assume the Episcopalians are making ends meet.
But there should have been mainstream reporters (Religion News Service, anyone?) digging this out; asking the hard questions as to how a tiny remnant has managed to pay the bills on that large property and also asking how TFCA raised all the millions of dollars it needed (about $54 million total) to build on its property.
So many good ideas, but no journalists out there willing to write them up.