Finding the current: Small Episcopal worship groups form in wake of theological storm
One clear evening in mid-January, a group of Edisto Island Episcopalians gathered at the home of Gretchen Smith. They filled the living room. They spilled into the adjacent kitchen and front hallway.
Three congregations join diocese lawsuit
To date, a total of 34 congregations have joined the lawsuit filed by the independent Diocese of South Carolina against the Episcopal Church late last year.The suit is meant to secure the physical property and marks (names and seal) of the diocese, which it has claimed after leaving the Episcopal Church in October.Joining the suit are St. Jude’s, Walterboro; Trinity, Pinopolis; and Church of the Holy Cross, Stateburg.The “continuing diocese” was added as a defendant in the suit.“ ‘The Episcopal Church in South Carolina’ is the working name for the diocese in the Eastern part of South Carolina that is associated with the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. The diocese is currently barred from using its historical name because of a temporary injunction issued in the lawsuit at the request of the breakaway parishes,” the continuing diocese said in a statement.Making the diocese a party to the lawsuit is a necessary step so that issues such as the diocese’s identity can be resolved in court, said Chancellor Thomas Tisdale. It also gives the continuing diocese more time to file its responses to the Jan. 5 complaint.
After greeting each other warmly, the group of perhaps 30 got down to business. They voted on a 10 a.m. Sunday morning worship time. They voted on who they wanted to serve on the vestry election committee. They voted on who should lead the bylaws committee.
Both the independent Diocese of South Carolina and the “continuing diocese” of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina are holding conventions next weekend.Both conventions, the governing bodies of the respective religious organizations, are meant to address administrative, governance and mission issues.The Diocese of South Carolina’s 222nd annual Convention will be held at the Francis Marion Performing Arts Center in Florence and will focus on moving the diocese forward, officials said. Workshops for lay members and clergy are planned, including three Friday that are open to the public: Youth Ministry for Small Churches, The Apologetics of C.S. Lewis and Sozo Prayer.The convention also will feature a special opening Eucharist sermon by the Rt. Rev. Keith Ackerman, bishop vicar of the Diocese of Quincy (Illinois) of the Anglican Church in North America. Also on the agenda is a presentation from the Rev. Bob Lawrence, director of St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center. The camp will celebrate its 75th anniversary this year.For more information about the convention, including its full schedule and resolutions, or to register, visit www. dioceseofsc.org and click “Convention Information.”The convention of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina will be at Grace Episcopal Church. It will feature a special sermon by the Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Neil Alexander, dean of the School of Theology at the University of the South and former bishop of Atlanta.The convention also will amend governing documents modified in recent years by its former leadership, restoring the continuing diocese’s accession to the Episcopal Church, officials said.For more information, or to register, visit www.episcopal churchsc.org.
They talked about outreach and volunteerism. They discussed options for securing a long-term worship space. They updated one another on the status of donated items.
It seemed as though they were forming a new congregation, but that wasn’t really the case. They already were a congregation, and had been since 1774. But in January, they had no formal leadership, no regular priest, no organizational structure in place, no budget of any significance and no church building.
All that had suddenly fallen away several weeks earlier, to the great distress — and relief — of those left behind to figure out how best to carry on.
For their parish, Trinity Episcopal Church of Edisto, had split in two after the Diocese of South Carolina announced in November it would chart a course distinct from the wider Episcopal Church.
The final break between diocese leadership and the church came after decades of discontent, especially among clergy who fretted that their church was compromising essential Christian tenets such as sin and salvation as it veered on a path of political and social accommodation.
Trinity is one of several parishes to see portions of its congregation leave to form worship groups of continuing Episcopalians. They call themselves by different names: the Edisto Worship Group, Episcopalians of the Florence Deanery, St. Anne’s worshipping community in Conway, St. Mark’s Chapel in Port Royal, East Cooper Episcopalians, The Continuing Episcopal Church, Summerville.
The Edisto Group has taken up temporary residence at a barbecue joint on S.C. Highway 174. The Summerville group borrows a black Methodist church. The Mount Pleasant group worships in the chapel of Hibben United Methodist Church.
So how does denominational schism play out at the parish level? What happens to worshippers suddenly out on their own?
Most of the Episcopal faithful consulted for this article insisted on looking forward, not dwelling on the religious rifts among friends and neighbors. They spoke of the fellowship and cooperation, the joyful worship experience, the generosity of people near and far who’ve lent support.
It all feels like something new, they said, but really it’s all very old, a return to traditional Episcopal theology and practice. “What we’re experiencing is a joy and homecoming in that worship experience,” said Ginga Wilder, a leader of the Summerville group.
Peggy Kwist said she left the church two years ago and lost contact with many of the parishioners, but she’s back.
“Now it’s a homecoming every Sunday,” she said.
George Tupper said the discipline of worship offered by the Episcopal Church and the big-tent values it advances make it something worth belonging to.
Wilder said the emphasis on sin is, for her, misplaced. “The issue is not sin but love and openness,” she said. “The Episcopal Church that I was raised in and continue to be part of says, ‘Wherever you are, come.’ ”
Kwist said she feels relieved to be part of the worship group. “I wanted to be able to question, wonder and seek,” she said.
The experience, though, has not been all joy. It is difficult to look from afar on a place so intimately woven into the fabric of one’s spiritual life, these continuing Episcopalians said.
Baptisms, weddings, funerals. These and other milestone experiences happened within the walls of their church building. For some, loved ones are buried in the church yard. For others, pews and stained-glass windows display the names of family members.
“We bear no ill-will toward those who formed another denomination,” Wilder said. “They are friends and we wish them well.”
On Edisto, members of the worship group often meet their co-religionists outside of church. They gather for meals. They work on outreach initiatives together. They run into one another at the store.
“Edisto is an amazing place,” said the Rev. John Fisher, a resident of the island for four years. “It’s the richest social life I’ve ever had.”
JoAnn Liles said the community simply avoids talking about religion and politics. The group is so busy making a new start, the effort has dulled the pain of separation.
“I thought it would be more traumatic than it is,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t do this!’ But it’s just a building.” Liles is busy with the nascent choir and Sunday school. She’s a chalice bearer. “Once this group was formed, it was like a huge celebration.”
On Sunday mornings, between 20 and 40 people convert Po Pigs BBQ into a chapel. They call it St. Bobo’s Cathedral. Priests, some of whom have emerged from retirement, others who drive from Charleston and beyond to fill in, lead worship.
On Edisto, Fisher shares the altar with the Rev. Bert Hatch, another retired priest living in the area.
On Jan. 13, the Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, retired bishop from the Diocese of East Tennessee, came from his Daniel Island home to preside over the service. Thirteen days later, vonRosenberg was elected provisional bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
He said he thinks the number of worshipping communities, and the number of worshippers within each one, is likely to grow over time, and that they require careful support from the local diocesan administration.
“It seems to me we are, and have been, doing basically three things to be supportive of the continuing churches and worshipping communities,” vonRosenberg said. “First, providing encouragement and moral support in a time that seems sad and risky. ... Secondly, we offer a resource of information, such as contact with supply clergy. That obviously is very important for the liturgical life of these communities.”
And finally, the continuing diocese serves as a conduit to the broader Episcopal community, he said.
“As the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, we are providing access to the larger church,” he said.
Workshops are planned for the weekend of Palm Sunday to help continuing Episcopalians understand and cope with church trauma, he said. Developing clear channels of communication among worship communities and continuing education for clergy also are on the agenda.
“As Episcopalians, we realize our relationships and our connections within the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, but also beyond that,” vonRosenberg said. “And it’s time to call on those willing to be supportive. We are part of something bigger and need to be able to count on them and depend on them at this particular point.”
Staying the course
Support is in no short supply.
Staying the course
On Tuesday, vonRosenberg received an email from the Diocese of North Carolina offering books for worship, he said.
The Edisto group received 28 prayer books from St. Stephen’s Church in Heathsville, Va. That congregation had struggled through a schism of its own several years ago. The prayer books came inscribed by members of the parish with words of encouragement, Gretchen Smith said.
Recently, vestments arrived, and last month St. Stephen’s priest, the Rev. Lucia Lloyd, along with four parishioners, visited Edisto and joined the local group at its Sunday service.
A man from Massachusetts with ties to the Lowcountry sent money and donated his grandmother’s linens to cover the makeshift altar at St. Bobo’s Cathedral, Smith said.
In Summerville, where the worship group now numbers about 50, support has come from the Diocese of San Diego (46 hymnals), the Diocese of Western North Carolina (85 prayer books) and lots of moral, liturgical and administrative support from parishes in Virginia, including Grace Church, St. Margaret’s-Woodbridge and St. Stephen’s.
These local worship groups may have found themselves suddenly adrift in the wake of a theological storm, but they have found their current, they said.
“We have to be very patient, we have to stay the course and be faithful to each other and to God,” Summerville’s Tupper said. “It’s a rich time for us.”