Small wonder, given the harrowing times recently, that news about a long-running property fight over a picturesque church in northern Virginia escaped most people’s notice. But the story of the struggle over the historic Falls Church is nonetheless worth a closer look. It’s one more telling example of a little-acknowledged truth: though religious traditionalism may be losing today’s political and legal battles, it remains poised to win the wider war over what Christianity will look like tomorrow.
On April 18, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld an earlier court decision that a breakaway Episcopalian congregation (now called the Falls Church Anglicans) did not have rights to the historic church there. Instead, the court ruled, the property belongs to the same mainline denomination — the Episcopal Church — that the Falls Church Anglicans had voted to leave in 2006. What’s striking here is not so much the legal outcome, for earlier cases involving other breakaway congregations had also ended without any clear advantage to the rebels. It’s that this episode is exquisitely emblematic of today’s Christian moment.
First, there’s the fact of why the split occurred. Once upon a time, schism was the stuff of doctrinal issues — disputes over the sacraments, or grace vs. good works, or the theological like. Not anymore. The Falls Church dispute concerned something that neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin could have seen coming: sex. In particular, it was the elevation in 2003 of an openly gay bishop that was the last straw in what Falls Church traditionalists and others like them believe to be a rewriting of the Judeo-Christian rule book. So they broke away to become the Falls Church Anglicans, and they lost their real estate in the process.