[The Episcopal Church in South Carolina press release] Responding to stories of loss and blessing told by worshiping communities across eastern South Carolina, the bishops of Province IV of The Episcopal Church June 27 issued an “Open Letter to The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” pledging prayers for the people of the diocese and support and cooperation for their bishop, the Rt. Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg.
“We commend you for your faith and courage during this trying season,” the letter says. “We observed that you are meeting your present difficulties with good fellowship, good creativity and good cheer. This is an inspiration to us. Your example and mission zeal is easy for us to commend in our own jurisdictions.” (The full text of the letter is below.)
Twenty-six bishops were at Grace Episcopal Church in Charleston for a twice-annual Province IV meeting that concluded June 27. On the previous day, Episcopalians from seven worshiping communities spent the day telling the bishops about the effects of the schism that has divided the people of their diocese.
Emotions surfaced frequently during the presentations as people spoke of how much they love and miss their home churches – historic buildings, ties that go back for generations, and friends and family who have taken a different path. But in spite of tears, the choice was clear, said Eve Pinckney of the Okatie group. “No matter how beautiful the building is, you’re worshiping God, not the building.”
Last October, church leaders loyal to former Bishop Mark Lawrence in the Diocese of South Carolina announced they were leaving The Episcopal Church because of theological differences including the blessing of same-sex relationships. Twenty-one parishes and missions remain with [The Episcopal Church], along with six worshiping communities that have formed from remnants of other parishes.
“It felt like being hijacked,” said Kevin Shea of the St. Anne’s worshiping community, a group started by people from a Conway parish that announced its separation from the church in October. “Our priest said ‘I am no longer an Episcopalian, we are no longer an Episcopal church,’” Shea said.
The separations, though painful, have led to abundant blessings, worship group leaders said. “We are truly experiencing joy and the freedom that comes with that,” said Ginga Wilder of the Summerville group, which recently adopted its new name, the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd.
“I have never been prouder to be an Episcopalian,” said Ellen Hardin of the St. Francis worshiping community in Charleston’s West Ashley area. “I am proud to be part of a church that will face these issues and find our way through them.”
The bishops listened attentively to an entire day of presentations, and gathered afterward to talk with each other about what they had heard.“The stories were profoundly moving, and they spoke of moral courage, a spirit of persistence and camaraderie, and a real lack of any vindictiveness,” said the Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith, Bishop of Southwest Florida and president of the Province IV House of Bishops.
“Each of the stories in one way or another expressed the desire to articulate the Gospel in word and action within each community and in the larger community,” Bishop Smith said. “Perhaps the most significant summary word was ‘gratitude.’”
Much of the gratitude was directed toward the Rt. Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg, who was elected in January as bishop provisional of “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” the working name for the diocese that has remained with the church. Bishop Smith noted how many groups thanked Bishop vonRosenberg for “providing hope, connections, and renewed mission energy.”
Despite challenges such as finding worship space – the Okatie group held its first service on Easter morning on a member’s dock – the groups reported healthy attendance. “We have children every week, enough to have a Children’s Chapel,” said Andrea McKellar of the St. Francis group.
Newcomers are drawn by the opportunity to experience Episcopal Church worship that had been unavailable to them for years as they watched their parishes distance themselves from the Church. Alex Shifflett recalled changes at her Hartsville parish that led her to stop attending. When her twin children finally asked, “Why aren’t we going to church?” she responded by finding other Pee Dee Episcopalians who went on to form the St. Catherine’s worship group in Florence. On June 26, the St. Catherine’s slideshow included a photo of the twins serving as the group’s first acolytes.
The worship groups have also given laypeople a chance to explore new leadership roles, or return to ministries that had been lost to them. Organist Nancy Hendricks said that when her parish voted to follow the breakaway group, she began throwing away sheet music, believing she’d never have the opportunity to play in an Episcopal church again. Now, she’s music director for the new St. Francis community.
“It feels as if everything I have experienced up to this point has been to prepare me for this,” she said.
The bishops held their twice-a-year meeting in Charleston June 25-27. On June 27, they met with Mary Kate Wold, president and chief executive officer of the Church Pension Group, to talk about changes in health care coverage under [the federal Affordable Care Act].
Province IV is the largest of the nine provinces in The Episcopal Church, and includes 20 dioceses in nine Southeastern states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The text of the bishops’ letter follows.
An Open Letter to The Episcopal Church in South Carolina from the Bishops of Province IV
June 27, 2013
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
We the Province IV bishops of the Episcopal Church write to share our heart with you having learned of and listened to your witness to Jesus Christ through the church.
We commend you for your faith and courage during this trying season. We observed that you are meeting your present difficulties with good fellowship, good creativity and good cheer. This is an inspiration to us. Your example and mission zeal is easy for us to commend in our own jurisdictions.
We rejoice having heard that the Spirit is healing and urging you forward in love driven action. And it was clear to us by your words and prayers that neither vengeance nor bitterness has any place with you. We rejoice at this!
We were especially excited at the fact that the stories of faith, love and innovation were told to us by lay people. This is yet another example for us that lay people living fully into their Baptismal Covenant is precisely what the church and the world needs.
We pledge to you our prayers and the prayers of those we serve as we all go forward in faith. And we pledge our support and cooperation to our brother, your Bishop, Charlie von Rosenberg. Again and again we heard that you are persuaded that he is the right leader for this time. We agree. For this consensus and for him, we thank Almighty God who gives us better and more generously than we can ask.
Going forward, please know that we are of one mind in thanking God for your witness to the entire church that we indeed worship and serve a real, risen and living Lord.
And, we would ask you to ever keep with you the words of the Apostle to the church in Ephesus: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” Eph. 3:20-21
Ever in Christ,
The Bishops of Province IV
The Rt. Rev. Scott Benhase, Bishop, Georgia
The Rt. Rev. Greg Brewer, Bishop, Central Florida
The Rt. Rev. John Buchanan, Bishop Provisional, Quincy (resides in South Carolina)
The Rt. Rev. Rogers Harris, retired, Southwest Florida
The Rt. Rev. Anne Hodges-Copple, Suffragan Bishop, North Carolina
The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop, North Carolina
The Rt. Rev. Michael Garrison, retired, Southwest Florida
The Rt. Rev. Douglas Hahn, Bishop, Lexington
The Rt. Rev. Don Johnson, Bishop, West Tennessee
The Rt. Rev. Charles Keyser, Assisting Bishop, Florida
The Rt. Rev. Peter Lee, Bishop Provisional, East Carolina
The Rt. Rev. Henry Louttit, retired, Georgia
The Rt. Rev. Alfred Marble, Assisting Bishop, North Carolina
The Rt. Rev. Santosh Marray, Assistant Bishop, Alabama
The Rt. Rev. Henry Parsley, retired, Alabama
The Rt. Rev. David Reed, retired, Kentucky
The Rt. Rev. Dabney Smith, Bishop, Southwest Florida (President of the Province IV House of Bishops)
The Rt. Rev. Porter Taylor, Bishop, Western North Carolina
The Rt. Rev. Morris Thompson, Bishop, Louisiana
The Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, Bishop Provisional, TEC in South Carolina
The Rt. Rev. Andrew Waldo, Bishop, Upper South Carolina
The Rt. Rev. Keith Whitmore, Assistant Bishop, Atlanta
The Rt. Rev. Robert Wright, Bishop, Atlanta
The Rt. Rev. George Young, Bishop, East Tennessee