SAN ANTONIO, TX: National debate prompts breakup at flagship Episcopal church
By Abe Levy
July 19, 2010
The Rev. Chuck Collins greets Susan and Bill Galbreath after Collins' last service at Christ Episcopal Church in late May. He retired over concerns about the national Episcopal Church's liberal changes, including approval of gay and lesbian clergy. JERRY LARAfirstname.lastname@example.org
In its storied 99-year history, Christ Episcopal Church has fashioned itself into a pillar of orthodox beliefs, Anglican heritage and charismatic fervor for spreading Christian salvation worldwide.
But in recent years, a gut-wrenching question has tested the bonds of this spiritual family.
Should it leave its parent organization, the Episcopal Church, for making unwelcome liberal changes by accepting openly gay and lesbian clergy and modernizing time-honored theology?
One group had enough.
They walked away from the 2,400-member parish in Monte Vista last month to forge a new one - free of potential intrusion from national leadership but one that will meet, at least for a while, in less ideal facilities.
A larger group remains in the parish, and while equally disturbed about the direction of the national church, it is resolved to carry on the parish legacy despite the shifting winds.
The unraveling began in earnest in May when the parish rector, the Rev. Chuck Collins, announced plans to retire for a future outside the Episcopal priesthood. Most of the lay governing body resigned the next month to organize the new church, including architect Rick Archer, a 22-year member and former junior warden.
"We miss the people the most," said Archer, 53. "Being in that place with that body of believers - young and old - is my fondest memory. But at the same time, we're not trying to re-create it. We're trying to understand what it is God wants of us."
Both groups have kept hostilities in check. Many still meet for Bible study and restaurant meals and respect each other's consciences. Yet both face new challenges.
Will those who left succeed in uncharted waters? Who will lead them, and what new Anglican network will they join?
Will those who stay rebuild after losing many of the most active, younger families? And will they hold off the liberalization under way?
Since their emotional goodbyes, both groups have stepped forward.
Those who left cut ties with the largest and most influential church in the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas, a 90-parish body covering most of South Texas.
Consequently, Sunday worship is no longer in a landmark sanctuary famous for its stained glass windows, balcony pipe organ and seasoned, director-led choir.
The group cobbled up its first service 10 blocks away in a one-room chapel loaned by Trinity Baptist Church. The walls are white and bare; two lit candles and a wooden cross were arranged on a table. A lone guitarist led the evening assembly reading from photocopied song sheets.
Shoulder to shoulder, 129 people packed the pews. Without child care, mothers occasionally darted outside with upset babies. There was no priest to serve communion.
Archer's sermon likened the humble start to the first Christians of the New Testament book of Acts. Their worship was in homes; their focus simply the teachings and example of Jesus. And their devotion paid off in growth and miracles, he said.
"What we have here is everything we need to be the church," Archer said. "We are lacking in nothing."
The group has grown to 145 and has met at other loaned sites, such as New Braunfels' Christ Our King Anglican Church.
That church was started two years ago by 225 people who also grew apart from the national church. They left St. John's Episcopal Church and are now members of the theologically conservative Anglican Church in North America.
The offshoot group had hoped the Episcopal Church, the U.S. body of the worldwide Anglican Communion, would reverse course after a watershed moment in 2003.
That is when the national church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Most in the Anglican Communion were outraged.
An Episcopal bishop in a lesbian relationship was consecrated in May.
These developments added to deeper concerns of Christ Church members: the Episcopal Church was ignoring the supremacy of the Bible and Christian salvation. And they feel outnumbered by other Episcopalians who praise the denomination's direction.
One who is pleased with the change is George Zayas, coordinator of San Antonio Gay and Lesbian Episcopalians and Friends, which rotates monthly meetings at five local Episcopal churches.
"We looked at the issue of slavery with misguided interpretation. We looked at interracial marriage with a myopic view and realized it was wrong," he said.
"The (national) church is looking at sexual orientation because more and more people are believing it is inherent at the time of birth."
Christ Church showed its displeasure with the national church by redirecting mission funds away from it, strengthening bonds with conservative Anglican communities outside the U.S. and fighting the changes at national meetings.
Bishop Gary Lillibridge took office in 2004 and called for denominational loyalty while voting against liberal policies at national assemblies. He also put a diocesan ban on same-sex blessings and clergy, which reassured Christ Church at least for a while.
But after much soul-searching and introspection, Christ Church members split over whether to leave.
"You're going to have people (who) have different levels of tolerance and comfort in disagreement," Lillibridge said. "Some can stay in the community even in disagreement in the national church, and others cannot."
Retired Bishop Bill Frey has replaced Collins as interim rector, rallying those who remain with a message to be a light in a wayward denomination.
"I've often felt that the (national) church had been taken over by pirates," Frey told them during a recent sermon. "And years ago when I was praying about the future, God said something like, 'Don't let the pirates tempt you to jump overboard. If they make you walk the plank, OK. But don't do it voluntarily. It's my ship.'"
Still, plowing ahead is a challenge. Sunday attendance at Christ Church has dipped from as high as 700 to 500 - normal for the summer but affected by the exodus. The church also faces a $250,000 shortfall in its annual $2 million budget, the church administrator said, and will make only half its $414,000 annual payment to the diocese this year.
Even with the recent turmoil, Christ Church's shaded campus of old oak trees anchored by a 97-year-old, Gothic-style sanctuary appears undisturbed. For generations, the facilities have provided cradle-to-grave rituals. The parish hall and education building hosted Bible conferences and fellowships. Its columbarium houses many loved ones.
Christ Church started officially in 1911 as a mission of downtown's St. Mark's Episcopal Church.
From its inception, it attracted wealthy, prominent people, well connected in the business and political communities and well represented on diocesan boards and committees. It earned the informal title of "the bishop's church."
A bishop once managed it, and one member and two rectors became bishops. A bishop's son, Sam Capers, was rector for nearly 40 years in the mid-1900s, a golden era.
Retired banker Tom Frost recalls that his great-grandfather Col. T.C. Frost sold five lots in 1909 to the diocese to build the sanctuary. Frost was baptized at 2 in 1930 in front of the same brass cross shining today on the altar.
Confirmed and married there, he's also confessed sins, shared joys and asked for heavenly strength for some of the city's greatest trials, all on the same kneelers.
He remembers the time he was treasurer of Methodist Hospital in 1963 and had the task of luring investments to save it from financial ruin. And in 1968, he was asked to rally investments for HemisFair when money dried up in the opening weeks.
"The Lord has helped me solve a lot of problems there," said Frost, 82. "It's been the whole platform of my spiritual development. That last rite will probably be taken in front of that same (altar) cross where all the other rites took place."
Frost has replaced Collins as the leader of a weekly Bible study started 24 years ago at the downtown Frost Bank tower. He misses the scholarly background that Collins brought to the lessons. Frost is one of five still on the church vestry. He has returned to roles he used to fill generations ago.
He'll help select other vestry members and lead an "every member" pledge drive in the fall.
"I see the value of continuing on. The national church is not where our real worship is at," he said. "We're just going to keep doing the business of the church."
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