Anglican parishes prevail in property fight in Virginia

Missionary Bishop Martyn Minns says The Episcopal Church has been moving away from its core convictions.

By Ronald E. Keener

Eleven churches of The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church of Virginia in December 2006 voted to “hold steadfast to historic faith and to Scripture, the authority of which was formally rejected by The Episcopal Church.” The matter ended up in the courts for more than a year, but on April 3 the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled that a 1867 state statute enables the 11 congregations to retain their property and assets after the majority of the members in each congregation voted to leave The Episcopal Church.

The ruling is considered a big win in what is likely to be among other legal challenges — and appeals — in months ahead. Other Episcopal churches may feel emboldened by the decision as they look at leaving the national denomination. (See news reports for April 4 at

The 11 Northern Virginia congregations formed the Anglican District of Virginia, which is under the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, or CANA. The new organization has 60 congregations and 100 clergy in 20 states [].

CANA was established in 2005 “to provide a means by which Anglicans living in the USA who were alienated by the actions and decisions of The Episcopal Church could continue to live out their faith without compromising their core convictions.”

Leading CANA is Missionary Bishop Martyn Minns, born in England, a mathematician by training, who left a career in computer systems with Mobil Oil to enter the ministry.

Asked why he is giving leadership to the CANA movement, he says: “I have five children and 12 grandchildren. What has caused me to step out is the question, ‘What kind of church do I want for my grandchildren?’ They deserve a church where the truth of the Gospel is held to without embarrassment, without compromise.”

Church Executive spoke with Bishop Minns just days before the Virginia judge handed down his decision:

I’ve read CANA is “establishing an orthodox Christian presence in this country.” Why has The Episcopal Church come to the place where that is necessary?

The mainline denominations have been on a journey moving away from what I might call traditional Christianity for quite a while. The Episcopal Church seems to have been moving more quickly than some others. What they’ve done basically is they’ve redefined Christian faith in some significant areas, both in Christology and also in the authority of Scripture as that plays out into sexual ethics and morality in general.

A growing number of us within The Episcopal Church — I’ve been part of the TEC for 40 years — simply couldn’t go there.

For a couple of reasons: First of all I grew up in a more evangelical tradition so the Scripture in its authority and the centrality of Christ are very important to me.

Secondly, we’ve increasingly become part of a global network of churches that are part of what the Anglican community and, particularly what I would say is the most vibrant community, which are those provinces that are referred to as the Global South. These typically are in Africa, Asia, South America and parts of Australia. These are churches where the gospel is alive and the church is growing; they plant entire dioceses, which are groups of congregations and large churches. Often, they don’t plant churches of less than 1,000.

So two reasons, the first is our own convictions, the second because we increasingly realized that we’re actually part of the Anglican tradition that is actually growing and thriving and developing in some remarkable ways, taking on holistic issues in terms of justice and poverty, but also some very evangelical events in its outlook.

Someone has said what we’re doing is simply part of mainstream Christianity. We have no reason to abandon that.

Secondly, out of sheer conviction we simply can’t go there [with The Episcopal Church].

What’s legally at stake in the Virginia court case regarding church property?

There is an intriguing law in Virginia that dates back to the 1860s which was set up for more difficult times in this nation’s history when basically congregations could choose. If there was a division in the denomination, they could choose which branch they went with, as a way of keeping it out of the courts.

Basically it said that a congregation could take a majority vote, though there were certain restrictions on how the vote would be taken, but assuming that it was along the lines of the congregation — that they have the freedom to choose, which is freedom of association essentially, freedom to associate which part of the ongoing structure [they chose]. We have appealed to that law to exercise the freedom of religion and the freedom to associate — which are core convictions of our heritage and that we’re exercising them. The national church pushes back and says no, we own you and we own everything.

Is this a narrow case affecting only Virginia law and Virginia congregations?

This particular phase of it is quite narrowly focused, because we are appealing to a particular state law of Virginia. However, the broader issues will affect a great many mainline churches. It is intriguing to me right now that you see the opposite situation in the Roman Catholic Church where they are trying to unhook property from the hierarchical church because of the many lawsuits they are facing.

One of the press releases said “every Christian denomination from the Presbyterians to the Methodists is watching to see what the ruling will be … the court’s ruling will impact the future of American Protestantism.” What is the wider context here?

There’s a bigger issue here and I think the question is, “Who defines and what does it mean to be Christian?” Do we make it up as we go along? Is there a revealed truth at the heart of who we are? Are there some universals that are unchanging depending upon the culture? That’s been the traditional view that there is some revelation-base for our faith, not simply a self-seeking way of defining who we are. So I think in that sense, it does apply to a number of different denominations.

I also think the level to which the courts are willing to either stay out of these battles or to be engaged in them has affected many of us.

You’ve referenced CANA as “leading the way for the new era of American Anglicanism.” What might that new era look like in the next five years?

I think of a much more self-conscious global fellowship. I do believe we will maintain our Anglican heritage but do so in a much more creative network of relationships, rather than the straight sort of geographic connections. I think it will be much more multi-ethnic; we will show the world that Christians can live together from a different perspective, of different backgrounds.

Also my hope is that we will be able to learn from our Global South friends and be more evangelistic and more committed to the holistic Gospel where we actually take care of the whole person. My prayer, my hope is that in this country we will begin to be humble  enough to actually learn from what our friends in the Global South are doing and take some of those lessons and apply them to where we live.

CANA is not the only breakaway movement in the church. Where do things stand nationally?

We’re working in an exciting reversal of the usual tendency in America to fragment. What we’re doing is actually pulling together in a Common Cause Partnership, which is a federation of all these various pieces in the Anglican tradition. We are very determined to work in close cooperation, so at this point there are more than 600 congregations across the country, that are a part of the Common Cause

Partnership. Some quite large, some pretty small, but a good mixture of congregations.

You used the phrase breakaway. We would see ourselves as the opposite; we’ve not changed too much, we’re still preaching the same gospel, we are conducting ourselves in the same way, our worship is the same blend of traditional and contemporary. We’ve not moved. The Episcopal Church has moved and we simply want to have the freedom not to go there.

You lead a Nigerian-aligned Anglican group in the USA. It is like “reverse missions.” How would you help people understand how that works?

I am more than willing to confess it is a little unusual. I would say there actually is a reverse flow in the missions work. There are a significant number of missionaries being sent to the developed world, especially to England and to Europe, where the Global South folk are now sending missionaries. There is something of a reverse mission flow. The level of Christian commitment in some countries in Africa is quite considerably higher than in the European countries. In that case it is an appropriate reverse flow.

I think the other thing is that we’re moving away from the straight hierarchical structures and to much more creative networking of congregations of common vision.

Are there issues other than the ordination of homosexuals that separate CANA from The Episcopal Church?

Well, absolutely. That in some ways will not be the presenting issue. I think the trustworthiness of the Bible will be a key factor — with the Bible as being trustworthy and authoritative. The centrality and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ will be a place that we would hold to, and the importance of conversion, of a person being born anew. These are things that we would hold as being at the very heart of who we are.

Then of course they have an implication for social ethics. For example, we would have a high view of the sanctity of life.  So I would definitely agree with you that the presenting issue is not the current homosexual issues, but it’s a fundamental one that has a working out in that context. As we would argue it’s not that we’re “anti” to anybody in particular but it’s totally inappropriate to have a man made a bishop, therefore a leader of the church, whose life and whose decisions are at odds with the fundamental teaching of the church.

The Christian church sometimes seems to be losing the public relations battle, for want of a better term, and public understanding. It’s more difficult for the church to prevail in many ways.

Part of the dilemma for us in this country is that we have made the assumption for too long that we function in a nation that has essentially Christian values and Christian structure. That has left us somewhat complacent. We’re got ourselves in a place where — if you go to other parts of the world, for example where the dominant culture is not Christian — [we think] to be a Christian it is hardly distinctive.

I think this is frankly a wake up time for many of us, to say “Hold it!” — being a Christian is actually more of a definition of who I am than anything else. In some ways I think we do need to have a renewed sense of self identification as followers of Jesus Christ and not simply be a part of a dominant culture.

If you go back over history, wherever Christians have been a majority they got corrupt. Whenever they are in a minority place they’ve got refined. They would always like to be dominant but the truth is it’s not good for us.


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