By David W. Virtue
It was a bitter sweet day for 65-year old the Rev. Dr. John Yates. Bitter because a long drawn out legal battle was finally coming to an end, and the day was soon coming when he and his flock could no longer stay in property they had loved and cherished, learned, listened and spiritually grown up in, having contended for several generations for ‘the faith once for all delivered to the saints.’ It was sweet because the transition was going relatively smoothly with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
Yates himself was ebullient with joy as he stood before his flock of nearly 4,000 evangelical Anglicans on Easter Sunday, many of whom had been with him for his 33 years of ministry at The Falls Church. Now, three decades of gospel ministry in a church founded in 1732 was finally coming to an end. Crowds were so dense at six services that there was standing room only. Services were videoed to overflow locations. A CANA bishop told VOL that he and his wife were forced to stand at the back of the main sanctuary; there were simply no seats available.
Tears of loss might have been expected as emotions ran high, but it was not so. Yates was ebullient with resurrection joy at the Spirit that filled the worship space on Sunday morning. “It was a joyous time, he preached five different sermons, something he had always wanted to do…it was all magnificent,” Senior Warden, Sam Thomsen told VOL.
“In the main sanctuary and the overflow accommodations in the Fellowship Hall, 3,160 people attended in three services where the usual capacity is 850, and the Fellowship Hall was maxed out. The remaining 800 attended one of the other three services, two of which were in the historic church.”
Virginia became the nation’s epicenter of Episcopal parish battles for the soul of Anglicanism. More than a dozen parishes, some mega church size believed The Episcopal Church had gone too far and had fallen off the cliff over the place and authority of Scripture and unscriptural innovations on human sexuality. It was a bridge too far for this and many orthodox Episcopal congregations around the country.
Here in Northern Virginia the heaviest price was being paid with tens of millions of dollars worth of properties. Yates knows that the eternal destiny of his people transcends buildings. The loss of one soul is more heart wrenching to God than bricks and mortar and a theologically corrupt and morally compromised denomination. With millions of dollars having been spent on legal fees and fruitless appeals to the courts, it was nearing time to move on.
Yates came to The Falls Church in 1979 when it had a congregation of 500. 33 years later the church can boast nearly 4,000 members with eight clergy and a staff of 60. The church’s annual budget is $6 million. No small achievement. His is one of the top five most successful parishes in The Episcopal Church of nearly 7,000 congregations. The church’s outreach in many directions is spectacular.
Among its many ministries, the church initiated an exciting church planting effort called Timothys program. It selects talented young men who have finished seminary and are interested in church planting to go through a testing process for three years to see if they are made of the right stuff to start a church of their own. A strong faith and entrepreneurial skills are a must.
Today several church plants have been established within 10 miles of The Falls Church with more are planned, some geographically further afield. Gracious in defeat, Yates noted, “Having served as rector of the Falls Church Anglican since 1979, I have witnessed first-hand this congregation’s spirit of generosity to the local community and beyond.
“We continue to exemplify Christ in this way. Our congregation rearranged its worship schedule to provide an Easter service time for local Episcopal worshippers despite litigation that has been brought against us.
“The death and resurrection of our Lord this Holy Week reminds us us that even though we are facing legal obstacles, He continues to work through the Christ filled hearts of our congregation. Our prayer is that this historic site will continue always to be a place where the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and lived.”
The properties with an estimated worth of $25 million plus some $3 million in liquid assets (but no interest) are currently scheduled to be turned over to the diocese.
Falls Church has already been the recipient of substantial ecumenical support. “When word went out that we would have to get out, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arlington graciously made space available and offered us an auditorium of a local Catholic high school for our main worship services. It can seat 1,400″, Thomsen told VOL.
“We have three locations for worship available to us in all. An Arlington County Middle School will allow us to use their attractive auditorium and the staff has gone out of its way to be helpful. Three Baptist churches have given space and other support and the Presbyterians have offered help. There are scheduling issues as we have multiple services but these will not stop us.”
There are signs and indications that the challenging circumstances have already spiked church attendance. “This Easter Sunday had the largest attendance on any single day we can remember,” Thomsen said. “We hope and pray that we can carry that forward.”
The continuing Falls Church Episcopal parish of the diocese drew some 350 in its service in the historic church, which filled the structure that George Washington helped to build. Half of them may have been visitors in support of the congregation, VOL was told.