Cover Story

Tidings of discomfort and joy

"Tidings of discomfort and joy" Continued...

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

Senior warden Marie Bartz reminded the group: “We didn’t get the building because we’re good people. … We got it because we have something to do.” Bartz says she’s glad they moved on when they did. “We spent a lot of time being distracted from the things we really should have been doing,” she says. “Once you leave, there’s freedom, there’s peace—there’s life after.”

ANGLICANS IN NEARBY Watertown, Conn., have found “life after” as well. The 60 members of New Hope Anglican—formerly Christ Church Episcopal—left TEC in 2007. After a few months of preparing for a legal battle, longtime church member Paul LePine says the congregation decided to walk away: “To fight for the property wasn’t worth the spiritual damage it was causing, and there was no end in sight.”

The congregation’s former stately building in a picturesque neighborhood now belongs to a prestigious private high school. (The property is worth an estimated $7 million.) A sign outside says a group meets for worship on Sunday mornings. At a coffee shop nearby, LePine says worrying about lawsuits and TEC’s direction became toxic for the congregation: “So we laid down our arms.” The vestry met with the bishop, resigned their positions, and started a new church with scant resources.

LePine’s daughter, Sara, now 16, still remembers leaving the only church building she’d ever known: “Leaving that was scary, but it’s how we learned to be the body of Christ outside church walls. … It was painful, but it was painful with a purpose.”

Since then, the congregation has worshiped at a hotel, a middle school, and a senior center. On a brisk Connecticut morning, LePine gave a tour of the church’s current rental space in a former tool factory. The modest room inside includes simple altar furniture a member built, and rows of wooden chairs, folding chairs, and a camping chair.

A smaller room serves as Sunday school space and a place to collect items for local ministry. Since the congregation left its building, LePine says it has been more focused on outreach to the community, holding events at the local senior center and for youth in a low-income neighborhood. 

LePine says the congregation hopes to reach more people in the blue-collar area of town, and says the move has pushed it to become more missional.“We’re an orthodox church in an unorthodox environment,” he says. “There’s nothing glamorous about this. But it’s good to be free to be about the mission.” 

Left behind

Anglicans aren’t the only Christians fleeing their denomination. Hundreds of churches have left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in the last few years, and the exodus accelerated in 2011 when the denomination approved ordination for homosexuals.

At least 110 congregations left the PCUSA in 2012, and the denomination lost 102,000 members last year. The group’s membership (now 1.85 million) is half its total from 1965.

Regional presbyteries decide property issues in the PCUSA, and some have allowed departing churches to keep their buildings. Other congregations have paid a steep price: In 2008, Kirk of the Hills in Oklahoma paid its presbytery $1.75 million for its own property.

Though many parishes leaving The Episcopal Church (TEC) have lost their buildings, some departing dioceses have fared better. The now-Anglican diocese of Quincy (in Illinois) won its case earlier this year, though Episcopal leaders have filed a new suit in another county.

In 2012, the diocese of South Carolina became the fifth diocese to leave TEC. (In an address to remaining congregations in South Carolina, TEC Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori equated leaders who fight TEC with murderers: “It’s not terribly far from the state of mind evidenced in school shootings. …”)

Mark Lawrence—bishop of the diocese of South Carolina—says the diocese remained in TEC as long as possible, but couldn’t ignore serious departures from biblical orthodoxy: “The gospel is at stake. It’s either revelation or speculation.” After the denomination approved liturgy for homosexual weddings in 2012, and attempted to remove Lawrence as bishop, most churches in the diocese voted to leave.

So far, judges have ruled in favor of the South Carolina diocese, though the litigation is only beginning. But if departing dioceses eventually do prevail, others might consider a move.

Meanwhile, other departing Southern churches have moved on without their property. In Savannah, Ga., congregants of Christ Church Anglican lost the building they had occupied for nearly 170 years.

The church argued the congregation had held title to its property since 1733, and shouldn’t have to relinquish its building. A judge disagreed, and the congregation surrendered the building to the diocese of Georgia in 2011.

The nearby Independent Presbyterian Church (IPC) offered the Anglicans use of their space rent-free. (The Anglicans meet before IPC’s morning service.) After the final service in their former building in December of 2011, more than 400 Christ Church Anglican congregants processed down Bull Street to the open doors of IPC. More than 500 members of the Presbyterian congregation were waiting for them. 

As they entered the sanctuary, IPC pastor Terry Johnson declared: “Our faith is your faith and our buildings are your buildings.” The congregations sang together: “The Church’s One Foundation Is Jesus Christ Her Lord.”

—J.D. in Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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