Episcopalians face tough choices

Atlanta Journal Constitution, Aug. 9, 2003
Kevin S. Austin and John Blake – Staff

Over the coming months and years, Episcopalians nationwide will struggle with the deep disagreements broadcast worldwide this week as the denomination’s General Convention confirmed its first openly gay bishop.

Even as individuals and congregations contemplate breaking with the 2 million-member denomination, leaders from the archbishop of Canterbury to the bishop of the Atlanta Diocese are calling for patience and prayerful consideration.

“We are a tough bunch, we Episcopalians,” the Right Rev. J. Neil Alexander, bishop of Atlanta, wrote in a statement to be read or distributed to congregations Sunday. The church will not suffer irreparable division, Alexander said, because of the deep love congregants feel for their church. “We are a church that was born in conflict, and we have stayed together when nearly all of our sister churches have split apart.”

But the events of the week have intensified fears of splitting.

Options range from individual members leaving their congregations to the unlikely outcome of entire dioceses seeking official recognition as a branch within the Anglican Communion.

The American Anglican Council, a group of conservative bishops, has discussed breaking away completely, but issues of buildings and pensions could stand in the way. Generally, all property belongs to the dioceses, not individual congregations.

Further, the deep spiritual history and traditions of the Anglican Communion figure strongly in any consideration.

Options open to American members remain a matter of speculation and debate, however.

In recent decades, new congregations with allegiances to new national organizations have arisen, and many congregants have found that there is enough diversity within the worldwide church that they can reject actions by the Episcopal Church of the United States but remain in communion with the worldwide church. Others have formed Anglican churches that have no broader affiliation.

For those who do consider breaking away, there are many potential dangers, but also lessons to be learned from local congregations.

“It’s a real heart-wrenching thing to examine your faith,” said the Rev. William Weston of St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Dunwoody.

His congregation was formed as a reaction to a series of changes in the Episcopal Church, including the revision of the revered 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer.

“Episcopalians have an alarm clock in their head . . . and for some people it is going off now. Our alarm clocks just went off earlier than others.”

Weston’s congregation was hatched by 13 disaffected members from different churches in Atlanta in 1979. At first they met in living rooms, then a bank’s community room and finally found a small Presbyterian church they could afford to buy.

Marguerite Harvey, 73, one of the original 13 members of St. Barnabas, left Holy Trinity in Decatur. “We were the pioneers, and it wasn’t easy,” she said.

Today, St. Barnabas has about 240 members and is affiliated with the Anglican Province of America, but is not recognized by the worldwide Anglican Communion or the U.S. Episcopal Church.

While dissident congregations have lost court fights to gain control of their property, some church members believe that by confirming the Rev.V. Gene Robinson, the openly gay bishop, the national organization might have gone too far in “departing the faith,” opening itself up to successful court challenges for property.

The conservative American Anglican Council within the church strongly opposes what it considers to be unbiblical actions and has considered creating a branch denomination that would be recognized by the Anglican Communion.

The council will explore those uncharted waters that could culminate in another court fight; the meeting is scheduled for early October in Plano, Texas.

Property was not an overriding issue for the Church of the Messiah in Canton, which was meeting in rented space when it decided to affiliate with the Anglican Mission in America.

“The kingdom of God is more than building and lands,” said the Rev. Fred Goodwin. His church was a mission congregation of the Episcopal Church meeting in rented space in 2001, when the members decided to find a new national church.

The Anglican Mission in America was formed when African and Asian bishops and archbishops — objecting to what they considered unbiblical trends in the Episcopal Church — created the mission so the Church of the Messiah and similar conservative congregations could remain in communion with the larger Anglican community.

One local pastor, Michael Youssef, is curious about what would happen if a large group attempted to split and keep control of the buildings and grounds. Youssef is pastor of the 3,500 member Church of the Apostles, an independent Anglican congregation that broke away from the Episcopal Church.

“What if a bishop and diocese wants to walk with an entire diocese?” he said. “That needs to be tested in the courts.”

Youssef’s Church of Apostles’ new $60 million campus looms over I-75 just north of West Paces Ferry.

His congregation formed while meeting in rented space, so it did not have to leave any property behind, but it did not affiliate with any national group.

Explaining his success, Youssef said he attracts all sorts of refugees from doctrinal wars in other denominations. People, he said, are tired of seeing the Bible’s authority eroded.

“When you preach the truth, people will respond,” Youssef said.

But many dissidents may find it easier to remain in the Episcopal Church, partly because of its organization.

The Anglican Communion and Episcopal Church give local dioceses considerable autonomy. Some conservative bishops, for example, still refuse to ordain women.

And local bishops opposed to Robinson may refuse to recognize his authority.

In closing his letter to Atlanta’s Episcopalians, Alexander describes a scene at the convention of bishops hugging and “deeply engaged with each other in the work of prayer.” Two bishops, Alexander said, who couldn’t be more different.

“It was a moment that made me deeply grateful to be an Episcopalian. They were a living symbol for me of the kind of church we are when we are at our best.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday August 11, 2003.
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