Cover Story

Tidings of discomfort and joy

"Tidings of discomfort and joy" Continued...

Issue: "Tidings of discomfort and joy," Dec. 28, 2013

The congregation built a new sanctuary, but by 2004 voted to leave TEC. The diocese of Los Angeles filed suit against St. James, and named the rector and vestry members in the litigation. TEC joined the lawsuit. A California judge didn’t consider the waiver letter in his rulings, and awarded the $20 million property to the diocese in July. In August, the court gave the St. James Anglican congregation 45 days to leave, and the church moved to a Christian school in September. The diocese is still seeking additional funds from the church. A spokesman for the diocese of Los Angeles said he couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Longtime members of the church remember family weddings, baptisms, and funerals at the Newport Beach property. One church member had donated a stained glass window in memory of his son who died of leukemia. Other members collected the ashes of family members interred on the property. But if the separation has been grim, it’s also been fruitful: A carpenter in the congregation made wooden kneelers for worship. Volunteers have mastered setting up and breaking down for worship. Others are looking for outreach opportunities.

During the Sunday morning service at St. James, rector Richard Crocker told the group: “We are resurrection people. We are people of hope.” After the service, Marian Michaels, 82, and a member since 1965, said the loss was difficult, but “in a way it’s kind of exciting because we’re waiting to see what the Lord has in store for us.”

BACK EAST, the 80 members of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Bristol, Conn., didn’t know what God had in store for them. The congregation—formerly Trinity Episcopal—was founded in 1747, and built its last building in 1949. Don Helmandollar, 74, became Trinity’s rector in 1999 when he entered the ministry at nearly 60 years old. 

By 2003, Helmandollar was meeting with other conservative Episcopal priests to discuss TEC’s alarming trajectory. “Our main thing has never been about homosexuality,” he says. “It’s about whether the Bible is the Word of God and Jesus is the only way.”

Eventually, six parishes (known as the Connecticut 6) asked a judge to declare their properties belonged to them and not the diocese. A judge dismissed the suit, and Helmandollar says national TEC leaders summoned him and other priests to TEC’s New York headquarters to ask them to back down.

They didn’t. A handful of the churches, including Trinity, left TEC in 2007. The Diocese of Connecticut defrocked Helmandollar and demanded the church leave the property.

Trinity settled with the diocese in 2008, surrendering everything except some of their funds. On May 25, 2008, Trinity members held their final service in the building and then sang hymns in the churchyard. “Then we turned out the light, locked the door, and left,” says Helmandollar. “And we have never regretted it.”

On a recent afternoon, Helmandollar and two longtime church members walked through the yard of their former building. A large “For Sale” sign sits in front, and dried leaves and vines partially cover the “Trinity” marker. The building has been empty for the last 5½ years, as members of Holy Trinity meet in a nearby school gym.

Fred Clark, a member since 1974, ticks through a list of experiences his family marked in the building: Clark and his wife married here, worshiped and prayed, baptized their babies, rejoiced at their children’s weddings, and grieved at their daughter’s funeral. “Those are hugely important milestones,” he says. “And yet they pale in comparison with standing up for the truth of the gospel. … When you put it in those terms, it’s really simple.”

Since their move, Helmandollar says the church lost a few families, but gained others. The church has worshiped under a basketball goal at a school gym, and prayed for guidance. A few months ago, an unexpected answer arrived. A local Baptist pastor called Helmandollar on a Sunday afternoon to tell him his congregation was growing old and had decided to disband. Then he told Helmandollar: “We’d like to give you our building.”

On a recent Wednesday night, Trinity members flowed into the 150-year-old church building in the nearby town of Plainville. Green wreaths with red ribbons adorned black lampposts outside the town hall across the street, as members of Holy Trinity stood inside the white building with high ceilings. “All we can do is praise God,” says Helmandollar. “We certainly didn’t do anything to deserve it.”

Trinity members are making some renovations before holding services in the church early next year, but an engineer told them the building is a structural gem. Downstairs, nearly two dozen members packed around long tables in the fellowship hall, sipping coffee and listening to a sermon by John Piper for a Wednesday night Bible study. The sermon’s theme: “God did it.”

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