Who Owns Ascension Church?
by Marjorie Hyer
Marjorie Hyer is a religion editor of the Washington Post. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 19, 1979, p. 876. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
For three days -- and one night -- spectators packed the hard wooden benches of the circuit courtrooms. What brought them was neither a grisly murder nor a lurid sex scandal -- although, to hear the defense tell it, there was more than a little of the latter involved. What was being litigated was a theological dispute in the local Episcopal church -- a dispute that had split the church and the town and found sympathetic echoes all over the country.
In May of this year, members of the 201-year-old Ascension Church voted 59 to 44 to break with the Episcopal Church and join the Anglican Catholic Church, as the major national organization of breakaway Episcopalians currently calls itself. At issue were the familiar questions: ordination of women and the Book of Common Prayer.
After the vote, the majority, under the leadership of Ascension’s rector John A. Pedler, assumed charge of the property and repainted the church’s sign from “Episcopal” to “Anglican Catholic.” The minority moved their worship services to a nearby church. But, maintaining that the deed to the present church building, erected in 1847, specifies that the property is to be used for a congregation of the Episcopal Church, the minority filed suit to oust the Anglicans and recover the property. They were joined by the diocese of Southwestern Virginia.
Ascension is not the largest of the four churches in this town of 1,000 in the rolling green foothills of the Piedmont, but it is the most venerable. Its membership rolls are filled with first families of Virginia and include some of the town’s leading citizens. When it came time for the trial, all the judges of the Amherst County Circuit Court had to disqualify themselves because the commonwealth attorney, J. Barney Wyckoff, was not only a member of the church but one of the defendants. So was William E. Sandidge, court clerk. Both men are members of the vestry of the Anglican faction that now controls the church. In addition to his clerk’s duties, Sandidge busied himself during the trial making sure that reporters were supplied with press packets -- prepared, of course, by the defense team.
In the trial, the plaintiffs -- the loyalist minority at Ascension and the Episcopal diocese -- clung to the relatively simple argument that according to the 1847 deed, they are entitled to the property. The defense argument was more complex. The flamboyant defense attorney, S. Strother Smith, contended that the question of who should control the modest red-brick church and its approximately $43,000 in bank accounts could be decided only by an airing of church doctrine to determine which side had remained faithful to it and which had departed from it.
Repeatedly he argued that the introduction of women priests, the new prayer book and other changes in the Episcopal Church had taken it out of the mainstream of Episcopalianism; that in fact the schismatic group, by separating itself from all that “error,” is the faithful remnant. “We are saying that the Anglican Catholic Church is the same as the Episcopal Church was in 1847,” he asserted repeatedly.
Smith, who is also chancellor of the Mid-Atlantic diocese of the fledgling Anglican Catholic Church, argued with all the passion of a true believer and the ingenuity of a skilled trial attorney. He pursued lines of questioning up arcane theological paths which repeatedly brought objections from the plaintiffs and the query from the bench: “Where are you going with this?”
Smith spent the better part of one morning recounting in graphic detail the alleged sins of some Episcopal bishops: Bishop John Spong of Newark, whose writings reflect some of the current controversy over Christ’s divinity; Bishop Ned Cole of Syracuse, who, according to Smith, “divorced his wife of 25 years and married the divorced wife of one of his priests”; Bishop Paul Moore of New York, who ordained “an avowed lesbian, whose female lover sat in the front row of the church in the place reserved for family.”
He read from a scornful account in a popular magazine excoriating Bishop Moore and Bishop C. Kilmer Myers for permitting cathedrals in New York and San Francisco to be used for antiwar rallies and counterculture activities in the ‘60s. He had even subpoenaed a newspaper reporter from Richmond who had once interviewed Spong when he was a priest there.
But at the end of this discourse, Judge L. L. Koontz, who had had to be brought in from Salem when the Amherst judges disqualified themselves, asked, as he did so often throughout the trial, “What does all this have to do with the property of Ascension Church?” and ruled out of order all arguments and testimony pertaining to doctrine.
The judge, whose decision in the case will be rendered sometime this fall, made occasional references during the trial to his own Presbyterian affiliation, and appeared to be bending over backward to admit every argument that had bearing on the case or that would help him to grasp the particular ways of Episcopalians. But time and again he thwarted Smith’s efforts to litigate in civil courts the doctrinal questions already determined in ecclesiastical councils. “When you get into which church is the proper church, that is doctrine,” he told Smith at one point. “That is not my territory.”
“Your honor,” retorted the frustrated Smith, “you can’t decide this case without deciding doctrine!”
For the first time in the trial the judge, who usually spoke so softly that the spectators had trouble hearing him, raised his voice and said sharply: “Well, I’m going to, so get on with it.”
One of Smith’s witnesses, William Rutherfoord, a former Episcopalian who now pastors an Anglican church in Roanoke, contended that because of the changes in the Episcopal Church, that body has not only departed from its original doctrine but has ceased altogether being a church. Martin P. Burks, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, countered in amazement: “Over 2 million people floating around the United States without a church?” he queried.
“That’s right,” snapped Rutherfoord. “That’s the sin of it.”
Smith left nothing to chance in getting his case aired -- in court or out. On the third morning of the trial, Hester Scott Wailes, whose great-great-grandfather helped construct the disputed church building, struck up conversation with a newspaper reporter as they waited for proceedings to begin. “We think some of the newspaper stories haven’t given our side,” she began somewhat apologetically. “Mr. Smith suggested we talk to the reporters.”
She invited another of the spectators to join the conversation. “This is what we say,” said Mary Boxley, who pulled a three-by-five file card from her purse and began reading from her handwritten notes: “The Episcopal Church has departed from the historic faith. It does not uphold the doctrine, discipline and worship of the church as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer . . .”
Mrs. Boxley also came prepared with a 40-page booklet, a history of the church, which included a six-page listing of memorials given the church in the past quarter-century. Here, more than in any testimony developed at the trial, was the mute evidence of the anguish caused by the rift in the church: “Green silk altar hangings given by Miss Winifred Walker in memory of her sister, Ruby Walker . . . Private communion service given by Mrs. Annie Rose Robertson Sprague in memory of her mother and her sisters . . . A dogwood planted on the front lawn in memory of Marie Gatling Payne . . .”
During a recess, Smith told reporters that the disputing parties hope to reach an out-of-court settlement on a division of the memorial gifts, based on the present allegiance of the parties that gave them.
But how do you divide a memorial dogwood?