How To Destroy An Episcopal Parish
By David W. Virtue
In the city of Brockton, Massachusetts stands St. Paul's Episcopal Church, a magnificent 135-year old imposing Gothic structure created by the renowned architect of collegiate and ecclesiastical buildings, Ralph Adams Cram (1863 - 1942). The church has a great window of stained glass over the Altar from the bombed-out Rheims cathedral. At one point in its history St. Paul's was one of the largest, most thriving Anglo-Catholic parishes in the Diocese of Massachusetts and home to more than 800 faithful, believing Episcopalians.
Its parishioners built the parish; the diocese did not put a penny into its construction. Faithful Episcopalians erected it as a monument to the energy and faith of its people and to the glory of God.
Established by the friars of the Cowley Fathers and staffed for the first 10 years by the good fathers, St. Paul's was one of the oldest and most prestigious catholic parishes in New England. Its most famous rector was Fr. David Matthews an all American golden glove boxer.
A later preacher, Roger W. Blanchard, became Bishop Coadjutor of Southern Ohio. A former church priest raised him. He later became CEO of the church's national headquarters in New York.
During the 1980's, world renowned Church of England Bishop Michael Marshall preached there numerous times. In its hay day, the church claimed 800 to 1,000 persons at its three services. Episcopalians traveled from afar to listen as these and other famous preachers graced its pulpit.
In the late 19th Century, St. Paul's was a strong, orthodox, faithful community. It was a landmark parish with a fine ecclesiastical pedigree and history.
Over time, however, the parish became spiritually infected with the invasion of the Episcopal culture wars. People and faith began to drift. But change was in the air.
On a bright, warm September in 1997 the Episcopal Synod of America (ESA) fired a shot across the bow of the stately church. Immediately after the 11 a.m. service, ESA President Pete Moriarty announced to the congregation that the bishop was that day assuming episcopal oversight of the 135-year-old ivy-covered stone church. It was a defining moment in the life of the parish.
Moriarty told the congregation that the Synod had appointed Bishop Edward H. MacBurney as interim bishop over the parish, its congregation and its priests. MacBurney had preached and celebrated the Eucharist that morning. The parish did not notify or request permission of M. Thomas Shaw III, Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, before the Synod entered the diocese to preach and celebrate the Holy Eucharist.
Moriarty said the diocese had previously denied the parish's request for Synod oversight. The parish sought Synod oversight after the diocese reportedly threatened to downgrade it to a mission and seize its property for refusing to pay its diocesan assessment.
St. Paul's had been refusing to pay its annual assessment since 1994, in protest of diocesan support in 1993 of the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions. These diocesan practices "are contrary to Scripture and Church tradition," said James Hines, junior warden of St. Paul's at the time.
St. Paul's multiethnic congregation and its vestry were now under the rectorship of the Rev. Dr. James Hiles and his associate, the Rev. Thomas Morris. Both had been in conflict with the diocese since 1993.
The diocesan Chancellor at that time, George H. Kidder notified the vestry in a letter -- after St. Paul's incorporated and filed with the state as an independent church -- that any change in the parish's status required the approval of Shaw and the diocese's Standing Committee. The parish's departure is "a nullity as far as the diocese is concerned," Kidder said.
Canonical charges were later filed against Fr. Hiles. The diocese was the first to initiate a temporary inhibition against a priest under the new provisions in Title IV of the national canons passed in 1994. Those revised canons greatly expanded the behavior that could be considered the basis for a charge of immorality based on sexual exploitation.
The canonical changes also allowed bishops to inhibit priests even before a presentment occurs. These canonical changes created a climate in which accusations establish a presumption of guilt until innocence is proved. Hiles' attorney, S. Lester Ralph of Reading, MA compared it to the climate of the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch trials.
Ralph said those bringing them, in cooperation with the diocese, fabricated charges against Hiles. The initiative was part of a plan to remove Hiles from St. Paul's so that the diocese could take control and end opposition to its policies.
The diocese did just that. Hiles was inhibited and deposed by Bishop Shaw. With ninety-eight per cent of the former congregation of St. Paul's in tow, he left. For several years they met in a Seventh-day Adventist church. Subsequently, they built an even larger facility - St. Paul's Anglican Church - at a new location. Today they are a thriving congregation.
The Diocese won its case in court but at the cost of over two million dollars!
Today the old church has been reduced to mission status with regular attendance from 12 - 15 on any given Sunday. The church is now virtually empty and the Diocese is asking neighboring parishes to help fund the utility costs.
Five different ministers have been in charge since Fr. Hiles left with 98% of the congregation eight years ago. The last two were women. When VOL called the parish a recorded message was heard from the interim vicar The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt.
St. Paul's "famed" kitchen, which fed hundreds each week, was shut down in 2005 for sanitary reasons. Rodents and fire caused eviction of the only ethnic group from the education building in 2006. A "For Sale" sign can now be seen out front of the building.
Reports have it that area congregations originally supplying St. Paul's kitchen with food for the homeless are now being solicited for financial support of the old building and its general fund.
By contrast, St. Paul's Anglican Church under the care of the Anglican Mission in America and the Province of Rwanda (since 1999) thrives.
It has the same rector, Fr. Jim Hiles, Associate priest and Deacon as before the eviction. The church boasts a modern new mission center with a nave for 225 plus with classrooms and an office. Regular Sunday attendance is well over 200 at two services. The church is planning a Phase II expansion with a new building program. All the bills are paid and there is generous giving to missions, Fr. Hiles told VOL.
The old St. Paul's church, and others across the country like it, will stand for a very long time as empty testimonies to litigation that local communities will overwhelmingly blame on the national church. A recent case was the sale of the cathedral in the Diocese of Western Michigan. Spiritual death leads to financial and ecclesiastical death.
Attorneys like David Booth Beers and revisionist bishops like Tom Shaw, Charles E. Bennison, and Peter James Lee may well win most of the legal battles over properties, but their victories will be at best pyrrhic.
An empty church is a dead church. Sooner or later it will be sold for commercial interests or to an independent Evangelical church looking to make inroads into an old or new community.
Furthermore there can be no doubt that this will have a chilling effect on future giving to the Episcopal Church, as congregations age and whither. As the media reports on the culture wars raging in TEC, demoralization, now all too evident, will only get worse. TEC is reaping what is sowing, and it is reaping the whirlwind of its own demise.
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