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TALLAHASSEE, FL: Change arrives at Advent

TALLAHASSEE, FL: Change arrives at Advent

By Janie Nelson

This Sunday will be the last that members of some families will worship together at the Episcopal Church of the Advent.

The church's minister, the Rev. Robert Coon Jr., nine of its 12 vestry members and around half the congregation are breaking from the Episcopal Church and forming a new church, Holy Cross Anglican Church.

Departing church members will begin holding services at a temporary location on Martin Hurst Road on Ash Wednesday.

"We have families that are splitting up," said Coon. "Parents, sons, daughters, grandchildren."

The split, which has been in the works for several months, comes with both emotional and financial challenges.

But, he said, he saw no way around it.

"The issue is that we do not see the Episcopal Church making any movement to repent," said Coon, referring to the 2003 decision of the church hierarchy to ordain the Rev. Gene Robinson, a gay New Hampshire man, as bishop.

"It's the hardest decision I ever had to make," said the priest, who has been at the Piedmont Drive church for more than three years. "But I know it's the right decision."

Services will continue as usual at the Church of the Advent, said the Rev. Kurt Dunkle, chief assistant to Episcopal Diocese of Florida Bishop S. Johnson Howard. The church's day school will be unaffected, he added.

Two retired priests, the Rev. Harry Douglas and the Rev. Lee Graham, will preside over Ash Wednesday services.

"Sunday (March 5), I believe there will be an interim priest in place," said Dunkle.

Douglas, who will lead the noon Ash Wednesday service, was one of the founders of the church, which ironically will celebrate its 47th anniversary that day.

"Those who remain loyal to Advent Church will be rewarded," he said.

Although Dunkle said he was saddened, he was philosophical about the rift in the congregation.

"It's important for us that Christians find the best place . . . to pray and . . . and to follow Jesus Christ," he said. "Sometimes it's in the Episcopal Church. Sometimes it's in the Roman Catholic Church. Sometimes it's in the Baptist Church."

George Allen, former senior warden at the Church of the Advent, is one of nine members of the vestry leaving to form the new church.

"It's difficult," said the man who has been a member of the church for more than 30 years. "But we will always be brothers and sisters in Christ."

The Holy Cross Anglican Church will begin its new life in a space it's leasing from the Tallahassee Builders Association just behind the former Winn-Dixie on Timberlane Road.

"It will be a temporary place," said Coon. "We hope in the next couple of years to buy some property to build a new church."

A recent survey taken by church leaders indicated as much as 70 percent of the congregation might leave, said Allen, but both Coon and Dunkle expect it to be about half of the membership.

Allen thinks attachment to the church building will cause many to stay.

"A lot of people just won't walk away from that building," he said.

A divided congregation will affect the finances of both sides.

The new church is being funded by pledges from the people leaving.

Their departure will cause some belt-tightening at Advent.

"Right now, there are two priests," Dunkle said. "The church will now have one priest and fewer office workers."

But he expects the church will remain strong, spiritually and financially. The church leader cites the example of downtown's St. John's Episcopal Church, which experienced a similar breakup.

"It lost almost half of its members in October," he said, "and it's still a very substantial church.

"It will not materially affect Advent," he added. "About 350 members with a budget of $300,000 is substantial."


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