Episcopal rift rips church apart
OAK HARBOR, Wash. - For decades, a sign outside this light-filled, two-story house of worship proclaimed it “St. Stephen's Episcopal Church” - spiritual home to a congregation of longtime friends and neighbors who often watched movies together, walked the beach or shared meals in this middle-class military town on Whidbey Island.
But that was before the rift - before deeply held differences over the ordination of a gay bishop officially ended the congregation as it had existed since 1952.
Now, in its place are two distinct congregations - a small one that remains in the U.S. Episcopal Church and a larger one that has severed ties and aligned itself with a conservative Brazilian bishop in the Anglican Communion.
While the two groups worship on the same property, their former closeness is gone, replaced by hard feelings.
Decades-long friendships have been strained or lost. Some in the Episcopal congregation feel wounded by how they say they were treated. Some in the Anglican congregation resent being considered extreme.
“It's like a divorce or something,” said Roger Vehorn, a 60-year-old engineering manager and member of the Anglican congregation, which has renamed itself St. Stephen's Anglican Church. “When your family splits, it's painful.”
The two congregations stagger their services, with the Anglicans in the main sanctuary and the Episcopalians usually in a small chapel out back. The local Episcopal bishop hopes this arrangement eventually will lead to a reconciliation.
That the two groups are even sharing a space is unusual. But the clash of values leading to their split is not.
In fact, it's a clash that's playing out nationwide within the Episcopal Church, and worldwide in the Anglican Communion, an affiliation of 38 self-governing branches, with the Episcopal Church as the U.S. branch.
At the heart of the conflict are two beliefs:
One is that Episcopalians, above all, have a broad arm span that embraces a wide variety of views - including those for or against the ordination of gay men and lesbians.
This wide embrace encompasses those who read Scripture more literally and those who balance the authority of Scripture with reason, experience and tradition, as most in the church do, said the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, the recently elected rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.
“Some of the sorrow around this split is that the Episcopal value of wide brackets for differences of opinion has broken,” she said.
The other, opposing belief is that Episcopalians must more strictly follow biblical and church teachings, including those that say homosexual behavior is sinful.
“If you can't refer to Scripture, to the faith the church has taught for 20 centuries, to the teachings of the global communion, then what are you left with?” asked the Rev. Paul Orritt, rector since November of St. Stephen's Anglican Church.
For some at St. Stephen's, the break was a logical progression. For others, it came suddenly and wrenchingly.
When national church leaders voted in 2003 to approve the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, it became obvious to Vehorn that the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church was moving in opposition to what most Anglicans worldwide believe.
Some Anglican bishops in Africa and South America were especially critical, saying the U.S. church's actions could lead to a break in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion.
So far in the U.S., a small fraction of parishes has broken ties with the Episcopal Church to align with Anglican bishops overseas. These parishes believe the Episcopal Church, by its actions, is the one departing from the communion and church tradition. They believe that by aligning with the Anglican leaders overseas - since there are no Anglican dioceses in the U.S. - they are remaining true to the faith.
Before the split at St. Stephen's, congregation members struggled, with some caught in the middle and “so pained that they just want to make the pain go away any way they can,” Vehorn said.
It was around then that Sandy Taylor, a 64-year-old retired civil servant and member of St. Stephen's for almost 30 years, began feeling like an outsider in her own church.
She knew she was more liberal than many at St. Stephen's but had always treasured how they could kneel together to receive communion.
But by late 2003, she said, when she and others who did not want the church to split tried to get clear answers about what was going on, “we were talked to as if we were not Christian. We had the Bible waved in our faces more than once, then they would say something along the lines of, 'You're denying this is the true word of God.' It tore my heart.”
Hurt from those days still lingers. When Taylor used to walk into the church, a sense of peace and love filled her. “I don't find that anymore.”
It's just a building now.”
And things are sometimes strained with several close friends - two couples who are now members of the Anglican congregation. They still see each other socially, but deeper talk about faith - so central to their lives - is now off-limits.
“We don't have that kind of closeness anymore,” she said.
The agreement both congregations came to with the Olympia Diocese, which claims ownership of the property, calls for them to share the facilities for about eight years. Bishop Vincent Warner, who's based in Seattle, hopes that during that time, those in the national and international denomination, as well as at St. Stephen's, can work out their differences.
Members of both congregations say that could be difficult, given the deep divide.
Throughout the process that led to the agreement, there was pressure, from both inside and outside the two congregations, not to co-exist in a single building, said Vehorn, who served on the negotiation committee. Some Anglicans didn't want to share the space, while some Episcopalians thought they should fight to hold on to the property.
For now, said Vehorn, “I think we're very serious about trying to live with some uncomfortable situations in order to try and make this work.”