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A great divorce

"A great divorce" Continued...

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

The children's choir held rehearsals on the last day the Anglican church was in the building for their production of Joseph: From the Pit to the Palace.

"I'd like Curt to be the cupbearer," said McCarten in a room of about 30 kids.

"Yessssss," said the diminutive Curt, pumping his fist.

McCarten told the children they would be performing the musical in nearby Columbia Baptist Church. "It'll be a great place for our musical," she assured them.

After going through several musical numbers, McCarten led the children into the sanctuary, where they sang a benediction they knew by heart: "Go with us Lord and guide the way through this and every coming day." McCarten asked the children to pray to close their practice. One small voice prayed "that there would be love in the new church-that the people who are moving to the church we're now in would enjoy it." Another prayed "that we wouldn't be so depressed about not being in the church and that we would be close to God." The children ate cookies and cleared out, congregants cleaned the place, and a locksmith arrived to change the locks. Yates' daughter made a cake that she left for the Episcopalians.

The Falls Church Anglican is now itinerant, meeting in a middle school one week, a Catholic high school the next, and a Baptist church for one service. Given only a few weeks' notice to move out of their building by the court, the congregation hasn't firmed up its long-term schedule. Part of the church staff is squeezing into an office suite nearby, but most are working wherever they can. At a nearby Starbucks I saw two of the Anglican clergy sitting at a table, typing and talking.

Church staff emphasize that the eviction has been good for The Falls Church Anglican. For one thing, the church had outgrown its Falls Church sanctuary, piling in hundreds more each week than fire codes allowed. And the church has deepened relationships with other churches in the area. The staff now holds its weekly meetings at Columbia Baptist Church. Before the congregation broke away from TEC, the church had to get permission from the denomination to plant churches, and had planted two. In the five years since the breakaway, it has planted four churches in Virginia and is planning to plant another this year in Washington, D.C.

On the last day in the building, Yates sat in his empty office, talking to the young rector of Christ the King, one of the plants, who brought coffee and to-go cups. One of Yates' central missions has been to cultivate young leaders within the church, and he told the children sitting in the last service, "You kids, I can't tell you how important you are to what God wants to do. Give yourself to Jesus. He wants to use you in ways people in my generation have not been used."

The congregation's youth group is large-about 500 kids. But Yates regrets how the litigation has consumed the church's resources that could have been used for ministry: "It hasn't been time wasted, but when you think about all the money that has been spent-" he trailed off. For one, he had hoped to set up a local seminary option through a partnership with a larger seminary.

On Sunday, May 20, the Episcopalians' first service back at the property, The Falls Church was a quiet, empty campus. One little girl sat on a swing on the playground after church, a playground that was full of children the Sunday before. The main sanctuary, where the Anglican congregation filled the pews and overflowed onto the floors feeling the blast of the organ, was empty and silent, the lights off. A bulletin board at the entrance was blank except for bubble letters that read, "Welcome."

Around the corner in a small historic chapel, about 130 people came for the 10:15 service, many of them seniors, including Jessie Thackrey who is 98 and the oldest member of the congregation. She was intent on getting out of her wheelchair and climbing the short stairs into the church, which she did. A few parishioners from another Episcopal congregation that won a historic Virginia property from an Anglican congregation late last year came for the service and brought a day lily. The priest leading the service talked about the congregation's "journey in exile" over the last five years.

The older congregants, with their personal histories, seemed unable to reconcile walking away from The Episcopal Church, and from that place. Charlotte Needham was confirmed in the church in the 1930s. On Sunday morning she arrived at 7:20, she said, to prepare for the 8:15 communion. She stayed for the communion service at 10:15 a.m. too. She spoke warmly of Yates, and found the decision to walk away from the Anglican congregation wrenching. "I regret that it ever happened," she said about the conflict. She hopes the two congregations will reunite someday.

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