Homeless for seven years, following the loss of a $40 million 250-year-old historic church property in litigation with the Episcopal Church, a prominent Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) parish moved into its new home this week.
The congregation of the Falls Church Anglican (TFCA) in Falls Church, Virginia, celebrated a consecration service and dedication of their new sanctuary on Sunday, September 8. Since separating from the Episcopal Church in late 2006, the congregation has planted eight congregations across the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area and in three other Virginia cities.
TFCA is one of the larger congregations within ACNA, reporting 2,194 members in 2018, with an average principal service attendance of 1,274 and operating income of $6.3 million. The church’s daughter congregations reported a combined membership of 1,481 and an average attendance of 1,548 the same year. According to a 2015 congregational brochure, the existing property (which includes a multistory office building) cost $31 million, with an additional $23 million for new construction on the site. The new sanctuary seats between 900 and 1,000 people.
TFCA’s congregation has been, as Rector Sam Ferguson put it, “tabernacling” for seven years, migrating between three separate office spaces and even more worship sites. Walking into a new church home after many years in borrowed space is significant.
From 2001-2009, I was a member of TFCA, joining a group of approximately 70 people in 2009 sent out to plant an Anglican congregation in neighboring Arlington. I still have many friends there, with whom I shared conversations amidst Episcopal Church denominational turmoil and eventual Anglican realignment.
In May of 2012, I returned to the church for its final worship service in the historic property. The service featured spirited singing of Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and celebrated the many daughter congregations that TFCA had planted since a congregational vote to depart the Episcopal Church. As one longtime TFCA member prayed aloud that night, she was grateful that “the church planter is now the church planted,” and was trusting God to lead them in a new and uncertain season.
At a standing-room-only 8:45 a.m. service this Sunday in 2019, Ferguson noted that the Bible has many examples of people displaced for a season. God providentially engages his people in an activity or period of renewal that otherwise might not have occurred.
“God strategically forced us into a place of real weakness. As a church, we really didn’t know what was next. We really didn’t know what to do, except depend completely on him. Dependence, not independence, is strength,” Ferguson recounted of TFCA’s own journey. “Weakness will train you to lean on God.”
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 to 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.
To be candid, church buildings do matter. They serve as missionary outposts in the communities that church congregations seek to minister amongst. While the buildings themselves are not “the church,” they establish a physical presence in a community. For Anglicans and other Christians in historic, liturgical traditions, setting is important.
I exited the early service to make room for a second, 11:15 a.m., crowd that welcomed international guests from across the worldwide Anglican Communion, the third-largest global family of churches. A friend pointed to a beautiful arrangement of flowers with a note of encouragement from the nearby Roman Catholic high school that hosted many of TFCA’s worship services during the past seven years. It was a touching reminder of the many Christians who welcome Anglicans during their time away from their former church homes. Locally, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Evangelicals shared their spaces with the large Falls Church congregation that had many programs, but no property to house them in. It was a visible sign of an “ecumenism of the trenches,” in which the household of God joined together to provide during a time of need. Every other Anglican congregation I have spoken with has similar stories. Never before has our church life been so visibly international and ecumenical.
Sunday was also an important day at my own congregation as we celebrated our one-year anniversary and our first membership Sunday. I am a member of Incarnation Anglican Church in southern Arlington, Virginia, which is TFCA’s first “granddaughter” congregation (we were planted in 2018 by Restoration Anglican Church in northern Arlington, which was itself planted by TFCA in 2009).
During the service, our vicar preached on the importance of inviting the Holy Spirit into our lives and asking for spiritual gifts. While I personally come from a broad church Episcopal background, the charismatic emphasis of my pastor is something I greatly appreciate. Encounter with the person of the Holy Spirit is a common theme across my Anglican diocese.
Just as at TFCA’s consecration, it is our hope at Incarnation that we increase both numerically and in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. Just as at TFCA, there was a buzz as we took vows of membership and signed a church register.
“We are God’s living stones whom he is shaping and configuring into his holy temple,” Ferguson preached earlier that day. “You can imagine it is one thing to build a beautiful building out of bricks and mortar. It is altogether another thing to build a unified and holy people. We are far harder to work with.”
How fitting. God is indeed full of surprises.
Ferguson’s sermon can be viewed in its entirety here:
Comment by Scott on September 9, 2019 at 5:14 pm
Jeff, how is the old congregation who kept the old edifice doing ?
Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 9, 2019 at 5:24 pm
Scott, the church’s former property is held by an Episcopal congregation reporting a 2018 membership of approximately 750, attendance of 300 and plate-and-pledge income of $650,000.
Comment by Loren J Golden on September 10, 2019 at 10:42 pm
Assuming the $650,000 is paid entirely by the 300 who actually attend, this averages out to $2,167, which is a tithe of…
It’s wonderful to see how generous these materially destitute Episcopalians are with their meager incomes! The widow who gave her last two mites (Lk. 21.1-4) must be their patron saint!
Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 11, 2019 at 9:30 am
I’m not sure this is a sound assessment of a congregation’s financial generosity: they may tithe to a number of different ministries, not just the local church. Of course, attendance also includes children and visitors who are not expected to tithe.
Comment by Ralph W. Davis on September 11, 2019 at 2:59 pm
It’s my understanding that the stolen property takes close to $500,000 in utility costs a year. $150,000 to pay for everything else isn’t much!
Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 12, 2019 at 9:38 am
“Stolen property” isn’t accurate, Ralph. The Episcopal diocese went to the Virginia courts and the courts ultimately ruled that the property was held in trust for them. We don’t have to agree with that court decision (I didn’t) to accept that this was not theft. As for the Episcopal congregation itself, they seem to be doing well and have sources of income aside from just plate-and-pledge. They rent the main sanctuary to an African-American evangelical congregation (www.therockchristiancenter.org), rent out some office space, and own a small shopping strip across from the church that has been redeveloped with tenants. Yes, they are a fraction of the size of TFCA, but they’re probably doing better than any nearby Episcopal congregation in the past decade.
Comment by Mike MacKenzie on September 21, 2019 at 3:50 am
The national Episcopal Church asserted a trust clause on the physical property of all local congregations which it did precious little to finance and maintain. This trust clause was then enforced by the courts. Theft by any other name, I say.
Comment by Jay on October 9, 2019 at 1:12 am
Our reading in morning prayer this morning was about Ahab, Jezebel, Naboth, and Naboth’s vineyard. I’m pretty sure that having the highest political authority in the land does not negate the existence of theft. And as I recall, it did not fare well for the conspirators Jezebel and the petulant Ahab. While Naboth was dismissed from this life early, I’m certain he was welcomed to Abraham’s bosom. And Ahab and Jezebel, while living a bit longer, were very unceremonially disposed from this life, and were not, I trust, very happy with their subsequent accomodations.
Thank God for the faithful of TFCA, pastor Sam, and all those who have ecumenically supported them in the trenches as they’ve tabernacled these past 7 years.
Comment by Jay on October 9, 2019 at 1:20 am
This congregation, I trust, was like that one written to in the book of Hebrews (10:24)
You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
Comment by Paytick McClarty on September 10, 2019 at 8:42 am
I really like what you say here, but did you say the church and property total $54 million? With all due respect that seems outrageous to me for a church.
Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 10, 2019 at 9:17 am
It includes a substantial campus with a six-story office building that houses a number of medical offices (TFCA’s offices, classrooms and a chapel are on two of those floors, plus a concourse level). This is a necessary revenue stream for the church to be at the site. Real estate in the Washington, D.C. area is quite expensive. The sanctuary itself cost significantly less to construct, although it was still a lot of money.
Comment by Dav on September 10, 2019 at 1:08 pm
None of these conditions quite fit the usual vision that arises from the use of the word ‘Homeless’. But, hey – go for it! It is the age we live in.
These kinds of church are so suited to be playing a fair property tax.
Comment by Bloom where you are planted on September 10, 2019 at 1:15 pm
Just to add a comment here, the First United Methodist Church of Chicago makes this new campus like a chump change pole barn. It built a 50 storey skyscraper on top of its sanctuary so it could stay in Chicago.
The building happened 100 years ago, or even earlier, and the church is very much a progressive one even in the UMC, but it is a church in a unique setting to do God’s work.
Grace and good tiding to the new congregation at Falls Church!
Comment by Quauhtli Olivieri on September 10, 2019 at 1:26 pm
The expression “ecumenism of the trenches” resonated with me, at least in the way you used it in this article. The DC Metro region is a very challenging region for churches and believers (not saying at any part of the world isn’t), but this ecumenism of the trenches is truly powerful and something I’ve witness often in the Northern Virginia / DC chunk of the U.S. Great piece! Thank you for writing it!
Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 11, 2019 at 9:37 am
Thanks, Quauhtli! Chuck Colson coined the term “ecumenism of the trenches” to describe Evangelical and Catholic rapprochement. I’ve always liked it: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/charles-colsons-ecumenism-of-the-trenches
Comment by David Winters on September 11, 2019 at 6:22 pm
I’m so proud of what God did through these people. They chose to affirm the inerrency of Scripture, and specifically Biblical marriage, instead of enjoying the easy road of going along with the apostasy of the Episcopal churches. Their willingness to leave all and try to follow God’s leading is a witness to all current-day Christians. Myself, a Bible-believing Christian author, and many other Christians have deep respect for these beautiful believers in Jesus.
Comment by The Ven. Donald Seeks (Ret.) on September 15, 2019 at 10:14 pm
Congratulations to the members of Falls Church on completing their new building! It has been all too many years since the Diocese of San Joaquin and ACNA has had their churches absconded. We have new buildings in the West as well.