Bishops and lay members of The Episcopal Church province that spans the Southeast gathered in Charleston Wednesday to hear stories of worship communities forming after their home parishes left the national church last fall.
From West Ashley to Summerville to Edisto, those on hand described disputes that festered as their former parishes became more theologically traditional and critical of the national church.
A split culminated when 49 area parishes left the national church to follow Bishop Mark Lawrence, who leads The Diocese of South Carolina, diocesan spokeswoman Joy Hunter said.
Those loyal to the national church felt cast aside, some from lifelong church homes.
“We yearn to worship in our historic church building again,” said Ginga Wilder, a former member of St. Paul’s in Summerville, which aligned with Lawrence. “These are thin spaces where God’s presence is palpable and has been for 150 years.”
She and other former St. Paul’s members eventually shared the Eucharist with the Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, who later became bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. He encouraged them to worship together in homes to keep their faith vibrant, which they have done.
“It was the most hope many of us had felt in a long time,” John Wilder said. “We didn’t have to remain trapped where we were, stifled and stunted.”
The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd was born.
“We had nothing, but we had everything,” John Wilder said. “We had each other, and we had Christ.”
Then came the gifts. People donated communion vessels, linens, vestments and prayer books. Retired priests held services. And Wesley United Methodist opened its sanctuary to Good Shepherd.
“We have great hope for the future,” Mary Comer said.
Meanwhile, the parishes led by Lawrence wish these groups well, said the Rev. Canon Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary.
“We appreciate the challenges of those who feel displaced by the decisions of this diocese,” Lewis said. “We commend those who are forming new congregations, with new names, and making no attempt to claim the property of our congregations.”
Issues of governance, property and trademarks remain disputed in court cases.
Edisto Island parishioners loyal to the national church wound up in a BBQ joint called Bobo’s after other local churches denied them access to their buildings to avoid taking sides in the split.
Edisto worshippers also described support that helped them start anew.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal in Charleston sent prayer books with handwritten notes in each. A gay couple who visited sent a large donation saying they never had felt so welcome in a church. Visiting priests delivered the kinds of sermons members hadn’t heard in years.
Then the Rev. Chick Morrison of New First Missionary Baptist opened his doors for them on Easter. That service became their resurrection.
“We are committed to not getting bogged down in bad feelings and rancor,” Gretchen Smith said. “We are not looking back.”