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HEATHSVILLE, VA: Fracture in church Parish body divided as many shift Anglican

HEATHSVILLE, VA: Fracture in the church Parish
Body divided as many shift to Anglicans

BY ALBERTA LINDSEY
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Jan 8, 2007

Heathsville now has two St. Stephen's churches. One is Anglican, the other Episcopal.

The two were one church until last month, when 75 percent of St. Stephen's congregation voted to leave the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia to affiliate with Nigeria's Anglican Church. That group has changed its name to St. Stephen's Church (Anglican).

Those who wanted to remain Episcopalians have reorganized as St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

In the past year, 13 churches have severed ties with the Episcopal Church and the Virginia diocese. The remaining Episcopalians at St. Stephen's are the first to reorganize as a congregation and elect a vestry.

Differences over the role of gays and lesbians in church leadership and the authority of the Bible have prompted some congregations to pull out of the denomination.

"It's beyond belief when the Episcopal Church cannot confirm that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven," said Ward LeHardy, a member of the vestry of St. Stephen's Church (Anglican).

Before the split, the 125-year-old church had an average Sunday attendance of 110.

The Anglican congregation continues to occupy the Episcopal Church building.

For the past two Sundays, the more than 40 members of the reorganized congregation have worshiped at 8 a.m. in Heathsville United Methodist Church, about two blocks from the Anglican church.

Sandra Kirkpatrick, senior warden of the reorganized Episcopal church, said that rather than take a confrontational stance about occupying St. Stephen's, the members accepted an invitation from the United Methodist church to meet there, at least for now.

"We are so thankful that we are able to continue to be the congregation of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church," said Kirkpatrick. "And we are determined to continue to be a strong presence in . . . Northumberland County."

"The faithfulness of the Episcopal members of St. Stephen's and their love for their church is very encouraging at this time in our common life," said the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

When Lee met with the Episcopal members of St. Stephen's after the vote to sever ties with the denomination, he urged the group to be patient on the matter of property. He reminded them that the title to the buildings of St. Stephen's is held in trust for the diocese.

Lee also encouraged the Episcopal congregation to talk with members of the Nigerian Anglican congregation about ways in which the congregations might share the use of the property until legal issues of ownership are resolved.

The vestry of the Episcopal congregation expects those discussions to begin soon. The Episcopal congregation has continued to attend the prayer breakfast and other events in the St. Stephen's Church parish house and recently held a vestry meeting in the St. Stephen's library.

"We hope to be fully back in our church soon," Kirkpatrick said. "Organizing worship off-site, lining up clergy and getting everything in order is a full-time job," she said.

LeHardy said: "Anybody who is Episcopalian is welcome to come in as an individual but not as a group. The vote is what it is, and we are what we are. . . . We don't think it would be right for them to use the same building the Anglican Church is using. We love those people and it's painful, but life goes on."

It would be complicated administratively and spiritually for the two groups to worship in the same building, LeHardy said.

"There are eight Episcopal churches within 30 miles of St. Stephen's," he said. "They could easily link up with one of them."

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