CONWAY — Beyond the headlines, the story of the Diocese of South Carolina’s split from the national Episcopal church is the story of people like Rebecca Lovelace.
For most of her 64 years, she worshipped at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in this quiet farming town and bedroom community about a dozen miles from the high-rise condominiums of Myrtle Beach. That was until about two months ago.
That’s when Lovelace and a small group of St. Paul’s parishioners decided they could not stay in their church of 500 members as it followed the Diocese of South Carolina in breaking ties with the national church over ordination of gays and other issues.
Lovelace met with the priests where she attended church her entire life to tell them she could not stay.
“I really truly felt like there was a death in the family,” she said.
Now, with a group of about 35 people – many from Saint Paul’s along with some newcomers – the fledgling congregation known simply as the Conway Worship Group gathers each Sunday at the chapel at Coastal Carolina University. There, usually with a retired priest or one on loan from another church, they pray, sing, celebrate communion and make plans for the future.
The schism has been years in the making, dating to the national church’s consecration of its first openly gay bishop in 2003, which upset conservative Episcopalians.
“I think everybody reached a point where they couldn’t go any further,” said Dan Ennis, one of the organizers of the new congregation and who is dean of the university’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts. “A lot of us saw this coming and a lot of us dreaded it, but now at least we know what to do.”
The diocese in eastern lower South Carolina had 70 congregations with about 29,000 parishioners. It dates to the 1700s and is one of the original ones that joined others to form the Episcopal Church.
Fourteen churches have decided not to follow the diocese away from the national church. There are also now five worship groups with congregants forming new churches that will remain with the national church which has 2 million members and is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion with 77 million members worldwide.
Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the national church, plans to visit South Carolina next month as those remaining with the nationwide communion elect a temporary bishop.
The Conway group has had donations from other national churches and each Sunday uses a simple stoneware chalice, not the silver one most congregants were used to, for the communion wine.
One church in Virginia sent a bottle of wine to use for communion, “lots of Hershey kisses and some Kleenex for the tears they know we probably shed. But there is a light on the other side,” Lovelace said.
She has no animosity toward her friends in her former congregation.
“They are doing what they have to do. I respect the depth of their convictions. I don’t agree with it but hopefully they know I’m doing what I feel called to do,” she added. “I never heard a reason good enough to make me leave the national church.”
Ennis noted that Bishop Mark Lawrence has said the national church is spreading a “false Gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity.”
“I thought we are all going to be held to account so if I’m going to bet my soul, I’d rather be more inclusive than not inclusive,” Ennis said.
To the south, in Edisto Beach, about 40 people have left the local Episcopal church to start a worship group and form their own congregation affiliated with the national church.
Lovelace’s sister, Gretchen Smith, who grew up in the Conway church, has worshipped in Edisto for the past eight years.
“We’ve seen this coming for years. We maintained a presence there and worshipped there until it was clear we could no longer do it,” she said. Right now the worship group is meeting in homes but, after the first of the year, it hopes to find space at a local civil club.
Back in Conway at a service earlier this month, the Rev. Dan Lynch, a retired priest from Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., told the congregation of 45 people that God is ultimately in control.
“President Obama is not in control. The Republican Congress is not in control. God is in control of your future and your present,” he said.
“Too many doors have doors have opened for us for God not to be in control here,” Lovelace agreed later.
Coastal Carolina’s nondenominational chapel even included the kneelers that are used in Episcopal services.
“That was a sign to me that God was here and this is where we needed to be,” she said.