The Rev. Wilmot Merchant, rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in North Myrtle Beach, said the worst thing about the fracture of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina is the fracture of the relationships that went along with it.
People to whom he ministered for a decade, he said, no longer seek his counsel.
“I have been their priest,” he said of St. Stephen’s members who chose to side with the churches that disassociated from The Episcopal Church last year. “I have been the one going to the hospital, I have been the one sitting in conferences with them, I have been the one to laugh with them, to grieve with them.”
The fracture between a pastor and a congregant, though, is not the only one that separates The Episcopal Church from the Lowcountry churches that broke away from it.
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There are fractures between groups of congregants and their churches, between one church and another and between groups of churches and The Episcopal Church.
Some still-committed Episcopalians who were in churches that left The Episcopal Church believe the breakaway churches made the decision to do so several years before it happened.
Three members of what is now called Trinity Church – formerly Trinity Episcopal Church – in Myrtle Beach said this week that changes at the church in the past few years should have been clues of an impending split. But Birgit Darby, one of the three, said she didn’t see it coming.
.Another, Sam Syme, said the split in The Episcopal Church is a matter of conservative Episcopalians deciding to go their own way.
“This is just the religious aspect of the Tea Party movement,” he said.
Darby, Syme and Bobbie Lawson said that in recent years, the church removed words blessing the Archbishop of Canterbury and the presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church from the Prayers of the People, a liturgy that is part of the regular Sunday service. At the same time, the bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina and of individual churches stayed in the prayer, they said.
Also, they said, the election of the vestry, which oversee the daily operations of the church, changed so that only the church rector could put their names in nomination, and votes were sought just to affirm the nominations, not to choose among candidates. Additionally, they said the congregation could no longer get information on vestry actions that used to be readily available. And, All Saints Day was not acknowledged at the church last year, they said.
Between 300 and 400 of Trinity’s members weren’t at the meeting where a vote was taken on the disassociation from The Episcopal Church.
“The whole thing was rigged,” said Syme, who was present.
“It was a rushed meeting,” said Lawson, who also was there.
The Rev. Iain Boyd, formerly rector of Trinity Episcopal Church and now pastor of Trinity Church, disagreed with their characterization of the meeting. He said the vote was taken at the church’s annual meeting and that all members got a notice of the meeting, which included an agenda that said the vote would be taken.
Syme thinks of himself and others in a similar circumstance as refugees. They no longer feel welcome at their home church and worship instead at Grand Strand Episcopal churches that did not split with the main church, churches of other denominations or at sessions held in the homes of one member or another.
They are hoping that Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, will offer them some direction when she is in Charleston this weekend.
Jefferts Schori is to preside at a meeting of the Lowcountry churches that decided to stay with the main church where delegates will vote on a presiding bishop of the diocese. Just what they may call the diocese, though, is up in the air as a S.C. circuit court judge issued a temporary restraining order Wednesday that forbids The Episcopal Church from using the name or seal of the Diocese of South Carolina.
The breakaway churches filed a lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction. The breakaway churches also expect a fight over ownership of church property.
Darby, Syme, Lawson and Merchant would say the breakaway churches forfeited their property when they disassociated from The Episcopal Church.
“If you left The Episcopal Church,” Merchant asked, “how can you claim to be the Episcopal Church?”
Boyd said the explanation lies in the definition of “episcopal,” which means “of, having or constituting government by bishops,” according to the Merriam Webster online dictionary. The Diocese of South Carolina still has Bishop Mark Lawrence as its leader, despite a move by The Episcopal Church last year to have him removed.
Darby, Syme, Lawson and Merchant said the troubles in the church began with the 2003 election of a gay bishop in New Hampshire, but Boyd said it really began in the 1950s and 1960s.
During that time, he said, a California bishop called the Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost “excess baggage” and was not censured by The Episcopal Church for doing so. Then, Boyd continued, a New Jersey bishop wrote a book refuting The Apostles Creed, and again there was no protest from the church.
He said that Trinity members do not have an issue with homosexuality. As proof that it wasn’t central to members’ decision to follow the Diocese in disassociation from The Episcopal Church, he pointed out that Trinity and other Lowcountry churches remained a part of The Episcopal Church for nine years after the New Hampshire election.
The split with The Episcopal Church came after it tried last year to remove Lawrence as the diocesan bishop.
Boyd said he doesn’t know what members of his church now would call their church affiliation if asked, but calling themselves Episcopalians would not be wrong. Spiritually, he said, the church now is among those in the Worldwide Anglican Communion.
As for ownership of the property of breakaway churches, the Rev. Jim Lewis, Lawrence’s second in command at the diocese, pointed out that the Diocese of South Carolina predates The Episcopal Church and was, in fact, one of a group of dioceses that joined to form the church.
He pointed to the case The Episcopal Church brought against All Saints Church in Pawleys Island to take possession of its property when All Saints disassociated itself from the main church in 2001. The S.C. Supreme Court decided that case in favor of All Saints, which is one of the churches that predates either the diocese or The Episcopal Church.
Merchant, however, points to a document Episcopal churches signed several years ago that he said acknowledged that local churches were in effect guardians of property that belonged to The Episcopal Church.
Boyd said the document was an affirmation of all the church’s canons and did not refer specifically to property. He did say, though, that The Episcopal Church wrote a canon in the 1970s that stated that The Episcopal Church was the owner of the property and that individual churches in effect held it in trust for the church.
It will take years, all agreed, to untangle the issue of ownership.
Boyd said he is not unfamiliar with complaints such as those voiced by Darby, Syme and Lawson.
“I’ve been dealing with them for some time,” he said.
The allegations are unfounded, he said, and as proof said that actions of the vestry are posted on a bulletin in a church hallway, just as they always have been.
He said he understands why members such as Darby, Syme and Lawson are upset.
“It’s like watching your parents divorce,” he said of the split between the Diocese and The Episcopal Church. “You have to decide which one you will side with.”
Disaffected members are still welcome at Trinity, even those who have gone public with their complaints, Boyd said.
“Nobody bears any ill will against them,” he said.
Darby, Syme and Lawson don’t plan to switch their membership yet to an Episcopal church that will remain with The Episcopal Church. They are waiting with the hope that the court will decide in favor of The Episcopal Church and Trinity Church will again become Trinity Episcopal, the church which founded St. Stephen’s.
They believe South Carolina was targeted by breakaway advocates led by Lawrence.
“He has gotten so many people to follow with that great charm of his,” Syme said.
The break-up of The Episcopal Church is not a unique happening. Other religions, such as the Presbyterians, have gone through similar dissension and separations in recent years because of differences between conservative members and less-conservative members.
What’s happening with Islam, in fact, may be seen as the most radical case of conservative dissension.
Merchant said he, as with members of the breakaway churches, doesn’t agree with everything espoused by The Episcopal Church.
But he said he’s always found the church to be broad enough to encompass varied opinions.
He said he, and he believes most members of The Episcopal Church, follows the via media, a term that dates to the 16th century and refers to a middle road between Lutheranism and Calvinism. It’s the middle road, Merchant said, where liberals and conservatives are the minorities and the body follows the path of the moderates.