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Exit strategies

Church Transitions | Conservative congregations face complicated issues as more and more decide to leave liberal denominations

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

On a stormy Sunday morning in Charlotte, N.C., latecomers were still shaking off wet umbrellas and streaming into a rented chapel at a local Catholic high school as Anglican minister Filmore Strunk led the congregation in reading Psalm 19: "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold."

For this congregation, those words ring especially true: Less than 15 months ago, the 300-member group was worshipping with more than 1,000 other parishioners in a 22,000-square-foot, gothic-style sanctuary on a prime piece of property in a growing suburb. Strunk had been pastor of St. Margaret's Episcopal Church for 12 years, and the congregation was growing. Also growing: Strunk's conviction that he couldn't stay in a denomination abandoning orthodox Christian faith.

Strunk had long been part of what he calls "the resistance" to the liberal spiral in the 2-million-member Episcopal Church (The denomination comprises the American province of the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.) In 2003, the Episcopal Church ordained its first openly homosexual bishop, but the denomination's problems ran deeper: For years, church leaders had questioned basic Christian doctrines like the resurrection of Jesus and salvation through Christ alone.

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Strunk hoped church leaders would repent, but when they refused to put a moratorium on ordaining gay clergy in October 2007, he walked away: "At bottom I left the Episcopal Church because I don't believe it's a Christian entity anymore."

More than 300 members of his congregation agreed. Strunk led the group in leaving the denomination and founding All Saints Anglican Church. The small group left its comfortable property and Strunk left a chunk of his growing pension. From a rented office space nearly 30 miles from his former church's sprawling location, Strunk said leaving wasn't easy: "But my worry was that I could not stand before my Father on that last day and say that I really did contend for the faith."

Strunk's congregation is one of dozens that have left the Episcopal Church over similar issues in recent years. Last year, four whole dioceses withdrew from the denomination. Many ministers have put their congregations under the care of conservative Anglican bishops in Africa and Latin American. This summer, a group of nearly 700 Anglican churches-including many breakaway congregations from the Episcopal Church-plan to form a new denomination.

Anglicans aren't alone. Congregations worried about liberalism are fleeing other denominations as well, including the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (PCUSA) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Both denominations face pivotal votes this summer over homosexuality that could drive even more conservative congregations out.

As congregations leave denominations they've belonged to for decades, they face a host of complicated questions: Who keeps the church property? When should they let it go? What denomination should they join, if any? How do they start over? For many churches, questions like these make a new start both messy and invigorating.

Strunk knew leaving the Episcopal Church would be messy. He prepared his congregation for a possible split for over a year, teaching a Sunday school class called "Orthodox Anglicanism: Why the True Faith Is Worth Defending." Though homosexuality gets the most public attention in the Episcopal Church controversy, Strunk says the issue is one symptom of a deeper problem: "the wholesale abdication of the faith." (For example, the Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, says Jesus isn't the only way to God, and she referred to Christ as "Mother Jesus" in a convention sermon.)

Still, at least 300 members disagreed with his plans to leave the denomination, and Strunk endured personal attacks: "2007 was probably one of the worst years of my life." After leaving, the new congregation initially met on Sunday afternoons at a nearby Presbyterian church and now rents the chapel of a Catholic high school. The congregation nearly fills the 300-seat space and hopes to build its own building in the future.

Other former Episcopal congregations are fighting for their buildings. Canon law stipulates that church property belongs to the denomination, not the local congregation. That means a local diocese can claim ownership when a church leaves, even if the congregation paid for the building themselves. Judges in different states have ruled in favor of both sides of such disputes, and as many as 50 disputes in the Episcopal Church continue.

In the meantime, some 700 Anglican churches-including Strunk's congregation-are drafting plans to form a new denomination: The Anglican Church in North America. The body will include other groups like the churches within the conservative Anglican Mission in the Americas. But melding the groups won't be easy: The representatives must craft a constitution and agree on core principles, especially if they hope to avoid errors of the past. They also face other critical decisions like whether to allow the ordination of women.

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