Dissent is a centuries-long Episcopal tradition

Church that formed in ferment of Reformation may be facing new crossroads.
By Greg Mellen
Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram

Monday, August 15, 2005 - LONG BEACH — Fissures in the Episcopal Church are certainly nothing new. In fact, many say it is the diversity of the congregants and their beliefs that makes the church vibrant and relevant.

Diversity is what allows Episcopalians to have very structured and ritualized High Churches and more relaxed and socially active Low Churches. It is what allowed radical thinkers such as bishops James Pike and John Shelby Spong to rise to positions of power, while simultaneously questioning the literalism of the Virgin Birth and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And sometimes, it is what drives parishes from the flock.

When All Saints Church of Belmont Heights and St. James and St. David's parishes left the national church after the ordination of an openly gay bishop, the blessing of same-sex unions and other doctrinal changes, it was a sign that for some congregations, diversity has its limits. The three breakaway parishes have since aligned themselves with an Anglican diocese in Uganda, a decision that has met with a variety of responses.

Some may see the breakaway congregations as reactionary parishes that are on the outer fringe of the faith and out of touch with modern society. Others may see them as the leading edge of a much larger and ominous trend that could ultimately rend the Episcopal Church and shake the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Already, Anglican leaders from around the globe have repudiated the Episcopal Church and declared varying levels of diminished relations. As the Episcopal Church continues with its current policies, those relations could become more strained.

"I think it's safe to say the Anglican Communion won't look like it has in the past. I think Anglicanism is from now on permanently changed," said the Rev. Gregory Wilcox of St. Mary of the Angels, a parish that split from the Episcopal Church in 1977. "The Episcopal Church committed itself with the consecration of (V. Gene) Robinson and the continued dissolution of doctrine. It has committed itself to this path."

One of the larger active groups in the U.S. that is trying to restore conservatism to the Episcopal Church from within is the Anglican American Council. Formed in 1996 with nine bishops and representatives from more than 20 parishes, the AAC now has 29 chapters and affiliations with 41 schools and organizations.

There have been suggestions that the Anglican American Council could eventually evolve into a second more conservative Anglican Church in the United States.

Others see the latest dustup as just another minor skirmish.

Frank Kirkpatrick of Trinity College wrote in the spring 2004 edition of "Religion in the News' that "the threat of schism has been, as Mark Twain said of obituaries announcing his death, greatly exaggerated."

The decline of the Episcopal Church, however, has not been a source of laughter for leadership.

Worldwide, Anglicanism has been growing and now has 77 million adherents. However, the Episcopal Church has been in steady decline for 40 years, from 3.6 million in 1965 to fewer than 2.3 million.

Some connect that slide to the church's march toward social liberalism.

As the Rev. Beau Davis, an Anglican priest in Los Feliz, says, "(The Episcopal Church is) trying to be loving and trying to be inclusive, but you can't throw Scriptures out."

"The Episcopal Church is dying. They're shuttering churches," said the Rev. Donald Ashman, whose Anglican Church of Our Saviour was one of four parishes to break away from the Episcopal Church in 1977. "If these churches are successful, it could open the floodgates."

Since its founding, the Anglican Church has been one of revolt. It is, after all, a "Protestant' church.

In the early 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church was quaking with dissent. Martin Luther launched the Reformation with his scalding attacks on papal abuses and indulgences.

Soon the Calvinists, Presbyterians, Puritans and Congregationalists, Anabaptists, charismatics and humanists were seeking their own paths, setting doctrine and redefining their relationships with God and their churches.

Amid the upheaval, King Henry VIII of England, frustrated by the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and allow him to marry Anne Boleyn, decided to join the tide away from Catholicism. When Henry formally broke ties with Rome in the 1530s to create the Church of England, or Anglican Church, he created a fractious sect of the Christian religion.

That tradition has continued. From the disputes that set Anglican groups such as Pilgrims and Puritans at odds, to the breaking off from England and establishing the Episcopalian Church in the United States, the worldwide Anglican Communion has rarely lacked for commotion.

That trend in the U.S. church has become particularly noticeable in the last 30 years. In the 1970s, there was the ordination of women throughout the clergy, changes to the liturgy and Book of Common Prayer and a trend toward humanism or social conscience.

Those moves led a number of clergy and parishes to leave the Episcopal Church. In 1977, about 2,000 bishops, clergy and lay people met in St. Louis and created the Affirmation of St. Louis that, among other things, accused the Episcopal Church of "unlawful attempts to alter faith, order and morality."

From those meetings, a number of Anglican parishes organized and created dioceses and Anglican organization apart from the Episcopal Church.

More recently, new battlegrounds have emerged as the church has dealt with issues of homosexuality in the clergy, blessing of same-sex unions and ever-evolving issues of biblical orthodoxy and interpretation of Scriptures.

A group called Anglicans on-line lists more than 60 Anglican churches, dioceses and larger organizations that are not formally recognized or "in communion' with the worldwide Anglican Communion.

These churches may be completely Anglican in heritage and origin, but are simply not recognized by the See of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of Anglicanism. Many of them exist across a wide spectrum of orthodoxies and conservatism.

For example, two groups, the Anglican Church in America and The Anglican Church of America, have very different outlooks despite strikingly similar names. The former espouses more conservative values, while the latter is a member of the International Communion of All-Inclusive Churches. In both groups' Web sites, they note that they should not be confused with the other.

A number of dioceses that have remained in the Episcopal Church have elected to withhold funding to the national church. Virginia, one of the cradles of Anglicanism in the United States, reduced its contributions by more than $1 million. Nationally, funding for the church was down by 12 percent in 2004.

This year, there are pockets of discontent across the country. In Connecticut, a group of priests faced being defrocked for their opposition to the ordination of Robinson. In Alabama, a second congregation has left the fold. In Tempe, Ariz., a parish of 400 split from the Episcopal Church and left its building behind. In Lexington, Ky., a second parish severed ties with the national church. In Philadelphia, a parish defied its bishop by not only keeping a defrocked priest as rector, but elevating him to a bishop of the Anglican Church in America. In New Westminster, Canada, two congregations ended their affiliation with the Anglican Church of Canada, which also blesses same-sex unions.

Whether these events are just part of the normal ebb and flow of opinion and dissent in a large church or the sign of major fracturing, remains to be seen.

The congregants of All Saints Church and St. James and St. David's parishes say for them the split with the Episcopal Church is final and irrevocable.

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August 15, 2005 in American Anglican Countil (AAC), Churches Not In Communion, Diocese of Los Angeles, St. James, Newport Beach, CA | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Breaking Away

By Greg Mellen
Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram

Monday, August 15, 2005 - LONG BEACH — When All Saints Church in Belmont Heights split from the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese in October, it became part of a rich, fractious tradition that dates back to when King Henry VIII created the Church of England and cut ties with the Roman Catholic Church.

Biblical, doctrinal and social schisms have been a part of Anglicanism and the Episcopal Church ever since. So have defections.

In the late 1970s, the issue of ordination of women into the clergy rocked the Episcopal Church of the United States of America. Approval of the ordination of women, along with proposed changes to the Book of Common Prayer, spurred four Southern California parishes to take the extreme step of severing ties with the national church.

Nationally, the effect was not unlike the current debate over the ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire and the blessing of same-sex unions that led All Saints in Long Beach, St. James in Newport Beach, St. David's in North Hollywood and others to sever ties with the Los Angeles diocese and the national church. The three Southland parishes chose to remain in the worldwide Anglican Communion by aligning themselves with a diocese in Uganda.

The L.A. diocese sued the breakaway churches for their property and financial holdings, arguing that the parishes held them in trust for the diocese and forfeited them when they left the church. The same argument was used in 1977.

The four Southern California churches that left the fold in the 1970s found that their experiences tested the faiths and pocketbooks of both churchgoers and leadership.

The current breakaway churches may or may not have similar experiences. On Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge David Velasquez tentatively ruled that one of the churches, St. James of Newport Beach, is the rightful owner of the church and its property. Velasquez's final ruling is expected today at a 2:30 p.m. hearing.

The ruling will not apply to the two other breakaway parishes. Hearings haven't been scheduled on those churches but the issues are much the same, according to attorney Eric Sohlgren, who represents St. James but acts as a spokesman for all three.


The gang of four

In 1977, St. Mary of the Angels in Hollywood's Los Feliz neighborhood, St. Matthias in Sun Valley, Church of Our Saviour in Los Angeles and Holy Apostles in Glendale were moderate-sized parishes that made the monumental decision to break away from the U.S. Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Their decisions were spurred by the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 1976, which approved the ordination of women and changes to the Book of Common Prayer. All four parishes were sued by the Los Angeles diocese and went through lengthy court battles. Three won in court, but at a steep cost emotionally, financially and in terms of faith.

Of those that "won," St. Matthias of Sun Valley is now defunct and Our Saviour in Los Angeles hangs on with a rector who is also a full-time teacher. St. Mary of the Angels, the Los Feliz church that spearheaded the move, is now thriving. But in the interim it lost almost its entire congregation, most of its endowment and teetered on the edge of collapse before rebounding.

The rector of St. Mary's at the time, John Barker, whose name has become synonymous with the court case, led an attempt to have his parish accepted as a Roman Catholic Church with Anglican rites. When that failed, he left the Anglican faith, converted to Roman Catholicism and is now a priest in Murrieta. The Rev. William Brown of St. Matthias, similarly unsuccessful, also converted to Roman Catholicism and has since retired. Some members of the St. Matthias congregation later helped found St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Rite Catholic Church in Chatsworth. Despite its title, that parish is not a member of the global Anglican Communion nor affiliated with the U.S. Catholic Church.

Some remaining members of the congregation of Holy Apostles in Glendale, which lost its case, now rent space at a Presbyterian church for weekly Masses. The parish the Episcopal diocese retained was converted into a church for Spanish speakers and was renamed Iglesia de la Magdalena.

"We were young and ready to fight," said the Rev. Donald Ashman, rector of Our Saviour in Los Angeles and a member of Holy Apostles during the secession. "We didn't know how much pain would come. But don't misunderstand me: I don't regret it."

Catholic journey

For Barker and Brown, the former rectors of St. Mary's and St. Matthias, the journey was particularly painful and difficult. They bore the responsibility of leading their parishes away from the Episcopal Church, but eventually failed in their ultimate goal of forging relationships with the Roman Catholic Church.

Barker, popularly referred to as Father Jack, now presides over a flourishing Catholic congregation in Murrieta. St. Martha's Catholic Parish recently celebrated completion of an $8 million project to build a 1,400-person-capacity sanctuary. The parish now consists of 4,500 families and is growing each month.

When the subject of his time at St. Mary's is brought up, Barker politely declines to discuss it.

During the secession battles, Barker and Brown helped lead a national campaign to allow disaffected Episcopal parishes to be in communion with the Catholic Church of the United States while retaining Anglican traditions, including liturgy and married priests.

Barker and Brown were spokesmen for a portion of "Catholic-minded' Anglicans in the U.S. who saw Roman Catholicism as a safe harbor from leaders they said were making "irreversible changes to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Episcopal Church," according to a document Barker wrote describing the times.

For many years, there have been Episcopalians who subscribe to the so-called "branch theory." An outgrowth of the liberal Oxford Movement of the 19th century, the theory holds that Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholicism along with Anglicanism are branches of the one true church of Christ. This is rooted in the notion of apostolic succession, which holds they are the only faiths that can trace a direct lineage of bishops who have been consecrated back to St. Peter, an original apostle of Jesus. St. Peter is generally regarded as the first pontiff of Rome.

Episcopalians and Anglicans who share this belief have often sought to forge tighter affiliations with Rome. In addition to straining relations within Anglicanism, the events of 1976 threatened the Episcopal Church's relations with Rome. As a result, Barker, Brown and other disaffected Episcopal leaders met with officials of the Vatican, eventually working out an agreement that was approved by Pope John Paul II in 1980.

In 1980, Archbishop John R. Quinn announced a "pastoral provision' by which Episcopal and Anglican parishes could become Roman Catholic. In 1983-84, the clergy and parishes of five churches were accepted into the Catholic Church.

Although Barker and Brown won the war, they lost the battle.

In his paper describing the history of pastoral provision, Barker wrote that in October 1984, Catholic Bishop John Ward, on behalf of Cardinal Timothy Manning, told the clergy of St. Matthias and St. Mary of the Angels that no pastoral provision would be offered to the parishes. This happened despite what Barker said were private assurances by Bishop Bernard Law, one of the point men for the Catholic Church in the process, that the Southland parishes "would have little difficulty' being admitted into the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

After being rebuffed, Barker and Brown both left the Anglican faith and converted.

The Rev. Beau Davis, a parishioner at the time and now a curate at St. Mary's, still is angry when he talks about what he saw as underhanded treatment from Manning.

However, he remains hopeful that one day his parish will become a Catholic church with Anglican traditions. Maybe even in his lifetime.

"We still have good communication with the Roman Church," Davis said. "It's not going to happen quickly, but it will happen in God's time."

What's ahead

Given their experiences, members and clergy from the breakaway parishes of the 1970s say their prayers and wishes are with All Saints Church and the other secessionists.

Ashman said he suspects the three parishes are in better financial shape than the group that took on the church in the 1970s. And he predicts they'll need the resources.

"They're going to suffer because they're taking on a large corporation," Ashman said. "(The diocese) is stronger numerically and has more resources. A giant is going to take (the breakaway churches) to court, and it's going to be rough. I've been there and done that."

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August 15, 2005 in Church of Uganda, Churches Not In Communion, Diocese of Los Angeles, St. James, Newport Beach, CA | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

1970s church divisions painful for congregants

Legal outcomes differed, but communities in Sun Valley and Glendale faltered.
By Greg Mellen
Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram

Sunday, August 14, 2005 - Two parishes did not survive the separation trials of the 1970s.

St. Matthias Church in Sun Valley won its court case but was unable to keep its property. The once-thriving parish was already in desperate straits when the court trials began, and eventually the church was sold. Some of the congregants left with their pastor, the Rev. William Brown, and merged with St. Mary of the Angels in Los Feliz, while others helped start St. Mary the Virgin in Chatsworth. Still others left the faith entirely.

On a blistering day in Sun Valley, the L-shaped main church building that was St. Matthias appears deserted. The church and a portable outbuilding sit on a weed-covered corner plot of land near the Golden State (I-5) Freeway. The church is run by the Korean Blessing Mission Church. On a weekday afternoon the property is gated and locked.

Neil Paquin was a St. Matthias congregant in the '70s and deeply involved with the church. He said beyond the money the parish spent, the greatest toll was to his relationship with the clergy.

Photo gallery: St. Mary of the Angels Anglican Church

"Most of us really put our hearts and souls into it," Paquin said, "which I will never do again to any church. I wouldn't put my faith in a priest or minister or any man. That's where I stand now."

Paquin and Ruth Zuber are among former congregants who believe their clergy had ulterior motives in seceding from the church, although they agreed with the move at the time.

"The rector of our church seemed to lead us to Roman Catholicism," Zuber said. "That's not the way it was presented to us at first."

Paquin puts it in more stark terms.

"(Brown) sold us down the river," Paquin said. "He kept telling us he was doing it for the Anglican church."

Despite the outcome, Paquin guesses he still would have left the Episcopal Church and said traditional Anglicans felt forced to make a choice by either accepting a revised Book of Common Prayer or leaving.

Paquin and Zuber say the ordeal was hard for many.

"A lot left and never entered another church of any sort," said Paquin, who now lives in Washington.

Holy Apostles in Glendale was the only church to lose its court case. Unlike the other churches, Holy Apostles was relatively young and was formed after canons, or church laws, were put in place that specifically called for the property to revert to the diocese if the parish was dissolved.

That didn't make it any easier for the congregation, which spent about $20,000 in legal fees and was left with nothing, according to the Rev. Donald Ashman, a member of Holy Apostles during the secession.

In addition to his duties as rector of Our Saviour in Los Angeles, Ashman tends to 35 or so remaining congregants of Holy Apostles who rent space from a Presbyterian Church. Father Anthony Rascher, a former Episcopal priest who was among the first to leave the faith in the late 1970s, helps Ashman with the Holy Apostles congregation, as well as his own parish, St. Mary the Virgin in Chatsworth.

Doctrinal disputes and court battles make it hard for parishioners to remember the real purpose of church, Ashman said.

"You become filled with martyrdom and bitterness and forget charity," Ashman said. "That's what happens when you're pushed too hard. The tendency is to get angry and fight back."

Ashman said the prospect of taking on the Episcopal Church was daunting for a small parish like Holy Apostles, but congregants believed it was their only choice.

"They were frightened, it was a scary time," Ashman said. "Some people never recovered. I know parishioners who just gave up on God because they didn't know how he could do this."

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August 15, 2005 in Churches Not In Communion | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

St. Mary thrives after years of turmoil

Its 1977 exit from the Episcopal Church cost money, members. Now it's healthy again.

By Greg Mellen
Staff writer, Long Beach Press Telegram

Monday, August 15, 2005 - St. Mary of the Angels is a jewel of a building that sits on a quiet corner at the intersection of Hillhurst and Finley avenues in Hollywood's Los Feliz neighborhood. Founded in 1919, the original plan was to build a large church of the stars of Hollywood. However, the 1929 stock market crash hit hard on the West Coast, and although the 1930 structure remains, it is only a portion of what was envisioned.

It wouldn't be the only time vision and reality didn't match for the congregation.

The Rev. Gregory Wilcox, a large man with a heavy flowing beard, remembers the mid-1970s as a time of intense turmoil in the Episcopal Church. Amid this upheaval, St. Mary of the Angels decided it would have to secede.

The Rev. Beau Davis, a parishioner at the time and now a curate at St. Mary's, said rector John Barker and others, sensing the movement in the national church, changed parish bylaws to align with California property laws and help shield the parish from a future takeover.

The legal maneuver worked, but the price to the congregation was considerable.

"(The politics) took a toll on the parish, because that's not why people come to church," Wilcox said. "At one point they erected a chain-link fence because there were rumors the bishop would come and try to take the property. There were armed guards during Mass. It was not a situation geared to people who wanted to come and say their prayers."

Davis is a thin man whose passion about religion is so overt that he occasionally blurts out very unreligious expletives when he gets excited. His voice still cracks when he remembers those days.

"Probably the most painful thing, next to losing my son to cancer, was leaving the faith," Davis said.

For four years the diocese and parishes waged legal wars in the courts.

"People in this parish mortgaged their homes," Davis said. "We had a huge endowment at one time and almost all was expended on legal fees. But the people, the vestry and the people, insisted this must be done. There was a lot of genuine sacrificial giving."

By the time Wilcox became rector in 1985, the congregation had shrunk from about 170 to 18. The last member of that congregation still with the parish died in 2004, according to Davis. Although St. Mary's had won its freedom, the lingering psychological damage was evident.

"Even though we were completely separate, this place still had a siege mentality, and it took a long time for that to go away," Davis said.

Wilcox's solution was to refuse to talk about the parish's history and politics.

"(Wilcox) simply said, 'It's time to refocus. You come from an unpleasant past, but you've been delivered to a pleasant new future," Davis said.

Today, the parish is strong.

Wilcox said membership has grown to 220, most in the 20-40 age range. Davis said they are people who want a more orthodox doctrine and form of worship.

"We still get a fair number of Episcopalians who come here when they get upset with the way the church is going," Wilcox said. "But I'm not enthusiastic about getting a group of unhappy people who come here to gripe."

St. Mary's is affiliated with the Anglican Church in America, which is part of the worldwide Traditional Anglican Church. The Anglican Church in America was one of several splinter Anglican organizations formed in 1977 after the Affirmation of St. Louis.

The St. Louis meeting was attended by 2,000 Anglican bishops, clergy and lay people in opposition to the outcomes of the Episcopal Church's General Convention in 1976, including the ordination of women and changes to the Book of Common Prayer.

The Anglican Church in America has five dioceses in 32 states. The worldwide organization claims a congregation of 400,000.

Wilcox said the loose affiliation is irregular but valid.

Although Davis said God has delivered him to a better place spiritually, the pain and bitterness remain just below the surface. Davis said he remains close to many people who have left the Episcopal Church.

"One thing we all agree on is that the bishops sold us and our faith down the drain," Davis said. "The very people we looked to and trusted to be centers of unity became centers of disunity, and it was done with incredible cruelty. They were like shepherds who would torture their sheep before shearing them."

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August 15, 2005 in Churches Not In Communion | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Church of Our Saviour hangs on

L.A. church says it has 30 in regular attendance.
Long Beach Press Telegram
By Greg Mellen, Staff writer

Monday, August 15, 2005 - On a Tuesday afternoon, the traffic is thick and noisy along Olympic Boulevard near Carthay Circle just east of Beverly Hills. Inside the cool, dark recess of the Church of Our Saviour, however, all is silent. Nestled into a tiny triangle of space between Olympic Boulevard and Stearns and Carrillo drives, the tiny 1923 church is like an island sanctuary.

At 6:30 p.m., the six parishioners inside fall silent to the sound of the traditional Sanctus bells as the Rev. Donald Ashman begins the evening service. Dressed in ornate vestments, the priest conducts a one-man service in traditional style.

After locking up the building after the service, Ashman meets his wife, Ellen. It has been a long day for the rector, who also has been a full-time Latin and history teacher for 30 years at Hoover High School in Glendale.

Ashman said Our Saviour barely survived the court battles of the 1970s and saw its membership drop to 35 at one point. The congregation has built back up to 150 members, with 30 or so coming regularly to church, and manages to squeak by each year on a small budget. Yet, despite the challenges, Ashman has big dreams and hopes to build a rectory and an endowment fund before he retires.

"I figure I have 15 years," Ashman said. "I'll do all I can to keep the church for the priest after me."

The Los Angeles parish is now aligned with a traditional sect called the Anglican Province of Christ the King. Another of the collection of Anglican groups to rise in protest after the Affirmation of St. Louis, the Province consists of five dioceses with 55 parishes in 24 states plus Washington, D.C.

For the Ashmans, the ordination of women was only a part of the fallout from the late 1970s. Particularly troubling was the church's drift toward a more humanistic and less holy form of worship, signified in part by attempts to modernize the Book of Common Prayer and make services more accessible.

The Book of Common Prayer is a central part of Anglican worship. Extensive revisions weren't formally approved until 1979, after the court battles had been launched, but had been used experimentally beginning in 1976. The revisions and services, in part, mirrored similar modernization in the Roman Catholic Church that was undertaken after the Vatican II, which took place from 1962-65.

This was also a time when the so-called Low Churches became more popular in the national Episcopal Church. In essence, low services were less formal and the sermon took precedence over the liturgy. Many of the prayers are spoken rather than chanted or sung and incense and bells aren't necessarily used. Low Churches may also alternate informal morning prayers with the Eucharist, an entire communion service, as their Sunday service.

The movement toward accessibility has had its downside, the Ashmans say.

The more formal services are "more ethereal and awesome," Ellen Ashman said. "The beauty of the older-style liturgy makes it all timeless," she said. "That type of service is not being demanded by today's mores."

"We are what the Episcopal Church threw away," Donald Ashman said. "We maintain apostolic succession, with the beauty of a traditional liturgy."

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