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'Large, viable remnant' wants to continue as Episcopal congregation
Determination to move forward outweighs sadness

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

St. Stephens  Church Heathsville  

[Episcopal News Service]  The 30 or so members of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Heathsville, Virginia, who opposed a recent vote by the majority of the congregation and the rector to join the Anglican Church of Nigeria say they want to continue as the Episcopal presence in their community.

"We are prepared to continue to operate St. Stephen's as an Episcopal Church, and I think we have people who will agree to accept leadership positions and to continue to carry on the work of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church," said Dawn Mahaffey, one of the people who voted against what some members are calling "the secession."

Sandra Kirkpatrick referred to that slowly organizing group as a "large, viable remnant."

Their determination comes not without some pain.

"Two of the speakers who wished to secede from the Episcopal Church told those of us sitting in the congregation that if we voted 'no' we were imperiling our immortal souls, and that was hard to hear," said Kirkpatrick, describing a discussion held during the week before the voting began. "This was said lovingly by people who have been my friends – dear friends – for over 10 years but they are very, very, very convinced that they are dong the right thing in leaving the Episcopal Church and they are acting genuinely worried about those of us who are not."

Mahaffey said she does "truly love" the family she has at St. Stephen's.

"This is not personal. These people have been my family, and I, and I don't think any of the others that have come to me, would harbor any evil feelings toward our fellow parishioners," she said. "This has been an issue around leadership and it's just been the way in which it has been handled. I don't think it's been done in a kind and equitable and fair way."

She called the actions of the vestry and the rector, the Rev. Jeffrey Cerar, "divisive, irresponsible and manipulative."

At that meeting to discuss the resolutions, Margaret Cox, a St. Stephen's member whose husband was rector from 1967 to 1972, said that a resolution to take possession of the St. Stephen's property "sounds like taking something that does not belong to you." She reiterated a number of the bequests and gifts given to the parish through the years, adding that "none of us owns this property; we only hold it in trust."

Meade Kilduff, who was baptized at St. Stephen's on December 28, 1918, told the same meeting that she liked the liturgy, the Episcopal Church's history and tradition and the ways the Bible is emphasized "again and again."

"Last but not least I like the inclusiveness of our church. It is our gem," she said. "I want to assure you, there is at St. Stephen's a loyal and substantial group of communicants committed to staying at St. Stephen's as an Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia."

Cox and Kilduff were part of a contingent that re-built St. Stephen's congregation after it dwindled to about 24 communicants in the 1970s, following a dispute with the diocese about vestry elections, Kirkpatrick said.

"Now these ladies, they're ready to do it again," she said. "There is a very staunch core of older people who don't want this to happen."

St. Stephen's is one of eight Diocese of Virginia congregations in which a majority of members announced December 17 that they were severing ties with the Episcopal Church and aligning themselves with Anglicans in either Nigeria or Uganda. More information about the Virginia votes is available here.

Heathsville is the county seat of Northumberland County in what is known as the Northern Neck of Virginia, a peninsula that borders the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. While the jurisdiction known as the Parish of St. Stephen's dates to the 1650s, the congregation of St. Stephen's was formed in the 1880s and, according to the church's website, "struggled for decades to keep the church open."

Mahaffey said there will be a meeting later this week to determine who is involved and what exactly they want to do.

The Diocese of Virginia issued a statement December 18 saying it plans to offer "every encouragement to establish structures necessary for their continuity as the Episcopal Church." Meanwhile, the statement said, the departing and remaining members of all eight congregations have agreed to a 30-day "standstill" during which no actions will be taken concerning church property.

A 40-day discernment period that led up to the vote felt like a "force-feeding" on the part of the vestry, Kirkpatrick said. However, the effort backfired in one small group as the members "managed to get into a serious discussion of what we wanted as Episcopalians, what we felt about our church and where our spiritual journeys had led us."

"At the end of this 40-day discernment period we had discovered each other," she said "We had found that there were enough of us that really cared to remain Episcopalians and really cared about being an Episcopal Church presence in Heathsville that we were ready to go to the consider expense of time, money and emotion to try and do this, as opposed to just going elsewhere, which would be very, very easy to do."

Both Mahaffey and Kirkpatrick said that the decision at the 2003 General Convention to consent to the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire prompted a change in the attitude of St. Stephen's leadership, which only got more determined with time.

Mahaffey said that Cerar initially said at a congregational meeting late in 2003 that he would try to work within the framework of the Episcopal Church to make changes but that he would leave if he felt he could not continue in the church. He said at that meeting that if he left and if others joined him, they would not attempt to take over St. Stephen's property, she said.

In December 2003, Kirkpatrick said, a vestry survey showed that the majority of St. Stephen's members wanted to remain in the Episcopal Church.

However, Mahaffey recalled, the perceived failings of the Episcopal Church "became the topic of his sermons from that point forward. It did not matter what the liturgy was for any given Sunday or what the Gospel was, there was always a way to bring the topic around to that issue. We very often got the message that the Episcopal Church had sinned and needed to be repentant."

"It got to the point that our needs for pastoral oversight and ministry were not being met because of the single-minded focus on this issue. We were not hearing the Word and how that was applicable in our daily lives. I don't think we were being ministered to in all of our needs."

There was a "steady outgo of people who found this message intolerable," Kirkpatrick said, and a "steady influx" of people who approved of the leadership's position.

"Everyone down here knew that St. Stephen's was taking this stance," she said.

Mahaffey said the growing disaffection with the Episcopal Church "has been very well staged."

"I think it has been sold to the congregation," she said. "Three years of hearing it week after week after week."

The issue of homosexuality was the "precipitating event but it has gone so far beyond that that I haven't even heard that mentioned in probably the last year," Kirkpatrick said. "The first year it was an issue, but not since. It has been: 'We know the truth and we are telling it to you. If you don't accept this truth then you really don't belong here."

"It is biblical inerrancy – taking the Bible seriously as a primary source, taking the Bible literally in a lot of cases. There's very much been from the pulpit and from everyone connected with the leaving-the-Episcopal-Church-side that there is one way, there is one truth and that they know what that one way and that one truth is… that anyone [who] believes, says, [or] accepts the idea that anyone could find truth in a religious life any way except through Jesus Christ in this particular narrow revelation of him is not a Christian."

Because many members left St. Stephen's or didn't attend frequently, some of them were declared ineligible to vote on either December 10 or December 17, including Mahaffey's 21-year-old son.

Acknowledging that the pressures of college and work also kept him away, Mahaffey said her son asked her a year ago: "Why would I want to sit there and have to listen to being indoctrinated into leaving something that I believe in?"

It is painful, she said, to have this example set for him.

Some have also questioned the ability of the parish's leadership to hold the vote on two different days. Kirkpatrick said that many people pushed to have the ballot boxes secured during the intervening days and they were in fact held in the evidence room of the county courthouse. A local paper featured a picture of the boxes being brought back to the church on December 17.

After the vote was announced that day, Kirkpatrick said the rector told the meeting that "he hoped that we continue as a congregation, and that he wanted very much to be a pastor to everyone, whether they voted yes or no, but that those of us who voted no should submit to the will of the majority who had decided to leave the church."

Mahaffey said she's disappointed that the dispute came down to the vote, which was 99-33 in favor of severing ties and 95-37 in favor of trying to retain the church property. Those who opposed either motion are not unanimous in their opinions about the Episcopal Church, she said.

"The bottom line of all of us that we can agree on is that it's not worth what's going on here," she said.

When she moved to the area, Kirkpatrick, who has been an Episcopalian for about 55 years, said she knew she was "more liberal in my theology" than many of the friends she made.

"But we have all this time been a wonderful church where we might not agree about things but we could talk about them, and grow and learn from each other," she said. "I have grown a great deal here and I am very, very grateful for the spiritual experience that I had at St. Stephen's before all this happened."

Mahaffey agreed that St. Stephen's has "good, loving people."

"In many ways I feel that the back of St. Stephen's has been broken and that neither side is going to be whole. We are now a broken church. We are a broken parish. We are a broken family," she said. "It could have all been prevented had what was promised to us in 2003 come to fruition: that we work within the framework of the church to affect change with things that we disagree . . . Now we're all going to have to find a way to heal – both sides. But there is a loyal following of Episcopalians at St. Stephen's and we don't want to be forgotten."