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'A New Day' for Two Congregations

Two parishes that have separated from the Episcopal Church will mark fresh starts by rewriting their articles of incorporation.

August 23, 2004|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

Two breakaway Episcopal parishes in Long Beach and Newport Beach said Sunday that they will amend their articles of incorporation tonight, underscoring their breach with the national Episcopal Church.

All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. James Church in Newport Beach left the Episcopal Church last week because of differences over homosexuality and the role of Scripture. The parishes placed themselves under the jurisdiction of a conservative Anglican bishop in Uganda.

"It's a new day, a new life here at St. James," Father Praveen Bunyan told his congregation Sunday, meeting for worship for the first time since the dramatic departure. Despite the parish's new affiliation, Bunyan exhorted his parishioners to "stand by the word of God that is never changing."

At All Saints, the Rev. Donald K. White Jr., the associate rector, drew on the Gospel of St. Luke to speak about "who is in and who is out" in God's kingdom. Without mentioning the split from the Episcopal Church directly, he drew knowing applause when he declared, "I believe Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life!"

The parishes' decisions to break away were the latest flashpoints in an ongoing crisis within the 2.3-million member Episcopal Church, and the 77-million member worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch.

Since the national church's highest lawmaking body, the General Convention, consented a year ago to the election of an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire, 22 of the 38 Anglican provinces or national churches worldwide -- most of them in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America -- have either downgraded or severed official relations with the U.S. Episcopal Church, according to Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the conservative American Anglican Council in Washington.

But within the U.S., Bob Williams, a national church spokesman in New York, said he had been informed that fewer than 10 of the more than 7,300 Episcopal parishes had left the church since Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson was consecrated. In addition, a number of dioceses have aligned themselves with a new alternative, the Anglican Communion Network, which hopes to be recognized by the worldwide Anglican Communion.

For members of the two Southland breakaway parishes, the worship services Sunday were both familiar and different.

They sang Episcopal hymns. They recited prayers from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. They participated in Episcopal rites to celebrate Holy Communion. Yet parishioners and priests considered themselves anything but Episcopalians.

St. James' decision to leave the Episcopal Church prompted at least one man who had earlier left the church to return to the Newport Beach parish.

"I quit this church when they got so liberal. I'm back. Finally, someone has returned to the tenets of God," said Ben Carlson, 58, of Newport Beach, who had not regularly attended the church for 12 years.

In Newport Beach, police stationed four patrol cars around St. James. In Long Beach, parishioner Kristie Kuehnast, an elementary school teacher, said the decision to leave the Episcopal Church was right. "It's just going to keep us straight in what the path we've all chosen is," she said. "I'm happy to have a passionate pastor who's willing to follow up on what his beliefs are."

In amending their articles of incorporation, the two parishes intend to remove references on their ties to the Episcopal Church. Last week, they removed such references on their parish websites.

But at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, among the most liberal Episcopal parishes in the nation, most parishioners were "saddened" by the turn of events, the Rev. Susan Russell said in an interview. Russell, who heads a national gay and lesbian ministry and is in a committed lesbian relationship, added, "It's hard for me to understand why my inclusion at the table means they have to leave."

The dividing issues touch on theology, church governance and how accommodating the church should be to popular culture, particularly to views about homosexuality.

Combined, the three factors have converged into a vortex of controversy that could eventually result in a historic realignment within the Anglican Communion, the world's third largest Christian church after the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

Although conservatives have insisted that homosexuality is not the only issue, it was seen Sunday by All Saints Rector William A. Thompson as perhaps the most obvious example of what he called the Episcopal Church's departure from biblical orthodoxy and historical Christianity.

"I think [Robinson's election] wasn't so much the straw that broke the camel's back," Thompson told reporters Sunday. "I think it was one more thing. For some it was such a visible way to way to see that the Episcopal Church had made an official decision that seemed to many of us to be counter to the authority of Scripture."

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