DOUGLAS, GA: St. Andrews parishioners leave Episcopal Church with dignity and grace

Church re-establishes as St. Andrews Anglican Church

By Mary Ann Mueller and David W. Virtue
www.virtueonline.org

Trinity Sunday was a day of new beginnings for members of St. Andrew’s Anglican Church. The day was a long time in coming. The slow but steady theological erosion of The Episcopal Church proved a bridge too far for this orthodox parish and its priest Fr. Curtis Mears.

On Pentecost Sunday, a super majority – well over 90 percent – of the membership of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church decided the time had come to leave the Episcopal Church fold for greener spiritual pastures. On that day, parishioners heard that their rector, the Rev. Curtis Mears had resigned as Episcopal rector of their church. All but two of the vestry members, as well as the junior and senior wardens, followed their priest’s lead by relinquishing their Episcopal leadership positions. As one parishioner told VOL, “It was not so much as leaving something behind, but rather going forward towards a greater good.”

One week later, on Trinity Sunday, the newly displaced former Episcopal parishioners re-established themselves as an Anglican congregation forming loose ties with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and taking the name St. Andrew’s Anglican Church to honor their historic roots. The new Anglican members celebrated their first Service of Holy Communion at a small vacant Roman Catholic Church located within walking distance of their former church property, graciously provided by church authorities.

The issues behind the break at St. Andrew’s had been quietly simmering since the turn of the Millennium. The election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop along with her heretical and skewered theology fueled the already smoldering fires of spiritual conflict with The Episcopal Church’s stated theological positions bringing into sharp focus the differences between orthodox Anglican theology and newly stated modern liberal Episcopal positions on sexuality and theology.

St. Andrew’s Church organist Gray McKinnon remembers that the discussion to leave The Episcopal Church first started decades before under the rectorship of Fr. William H. Littleton, who has since retired from the Episcopal priesthood following years of faithful ministry. The conversation continued under Fr. Joseph Daly who in 2010 handed the spiritual baton over to Fr. Mears. The “Son of Nashotah House” brought the deepening theological debate to fruition resulting in St. Andrew’s parishioners leaving The Episcopal Church.

St. Andrew’s, a broad church with Anglo-Catholic leanings, grew substantially under Fr. Mears’ spiritual leadership. In February, a Diocese of Georgia publication, “From the Field”, focused on the Douglas congregation’s growth revealing a 37% uptick far outstripping the 3.3% population increase resulting in ASA figures climbing from 59 to 81. The diocesan article, written by Canon to the Ordinary Frank Logue, acknowledged that the church’s exceptional growth was Fr. Mears who brought back the 1928 Book of Common Prayer as its liturgical standard of worship.

“It can be said that to succeed, one must compromise. But for the Church, this would mean that we also compromise our faithfulness. I believe a faithful priest cannot and must not compromise his duty to proclaim the Gospel and work for reconciliation,” Fr. Mears wrote in his January parish website letter. “Likewise, for a faithful Christian, there is no room to compromise with regard to our duty which is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.”

SEVEN POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT

St. Andrew’s parishioners identified seven specific points of contention between themselves and the liberal theological position of The Episcopal Church expressed by the Episcopal Presiding Bishop in what they described as her distorted nature-based spirituality. The seven specific points on which they could no longer compromise are: Jesus is the only way to God the Father; Jesus is the Son of God; the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ actually took place; the Bible is a reliable guide for all human conduct; Christians should evangelize; the Church is the Body of Christ; and the creeds (Apostles and Nicene) summarize historic Christian doctrines based on the Bible.

“The liberal agenda of TEC has exceeded our toleration,” McKinnon explained. “We felt for us to grow and become a light in our community we had to take the step forward.”

An on-going conversation to make a change had been taking place since the beginning of the year. Many things had to be worked out before the parishioners could finally step out in faith. A worship facility had to be secured. Then, even the most rudimentary items had to be assembled since the departing Episcopalians had decided to leave behind Bibles, prayer books, as well as the building.

The exiting Episcopalians saw the writing on the wall, having observed what happened to Christ Church–Savannah by the ecclesiastical authorities of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia and its bishop Scott Benhase. Christ Church is the grandmother church and great-grandmother church of Episcopal churches in the Peach State which saw evangelist Charles Wesley preach there. Christ Church was originally founded in 1733. Late last year, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the long established Savannah church edifice was held in trust for the larger national church and the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, not with the realigning Anglicans. The priest and parish knew the Dennis Canon ruling would apply to them and thus they sought a graceful exit to further their mission in Coffee County, Georgia.

McKinnon explained that several St. Andrews’ members decided that they could no longer financially contribute to the Douglas Episcopal congregation for fear that their tithes and offering would be used to support the liberal agenda of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the national church based in New York. Income to the church dropped dramatically by half. The church could no longer meet its diocesan apportionment and still pay its own day-to-day bills. The Diocese of Georgia understood the church’s financial situation.

Several years earlier the Anglican Society of Coffee County was formed in the anticipation of an eventual theological parting of the ways with The Episcopal Church. Those, who in good conscience could no longer economically support St. Andrew’s, built up the Society’s coffers providing a financial cushion should the congregation ever feel the need to move on. That day had finally come.

“We formed an Anglican Society years ago, but it was just inactive,” explained Holly Lott, who is a lifelong member of St. Andrew’s. She left behind all her fond memories as she stepped out with the rest of the congregation to form St. Andrew’s Anglican of Douglas.

Once the Episcopalians made the heart wrenching decision to leave The Episcopal Church and walk away from their building – which holds cherished memories of baptisms, confirmations, weddings, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter celebrations – events happened quickly.

All the church’s documents and papers were carefully put in order; the keys were dutifully turned over to the Diocese. The departure was timed to coincide with the local high school graduation and the beginning of the summer school vacation so that St. Andrew’s after school program would not be disrupted by the changes.

ST. PAUL’S CATHOLIC CHURCH

Many man hours of work had to take place Pentecost week to whip the Old St. Paul’s Catholic Church into shape in time to celebrate Trinity Sunday as an Anglican house of worship. The quaint white Catholic Church had stood empty for seven years. The Catholics left nothing behind when they outgrew their Ward Street location and built a new edifice located several miles away on Highway 441 South. The Anglicans had to find everything – prayer books, altar, Eucharistic vessels and linens, organ, pews, vestments, and a tabernacle. A processional cross and torches could not be procured in time for the Trinity Sunday worship.

St. Paul’s Catholic Church and their pastor Fr. Nicholas Mansell have warmly welcomed Fr. Mears and his parishioner. In the parish’s Sunday bulletin, the Catholic priest welcomed the Anglican congregation to the Old St. Paul’s location.

“We give a warm and hearty welcome to the newly forming Anglican Community in Douglas,” Fr. Mansell wrote. “Fr. Curtis Mears, former Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, and members of St. Andrew’s have formed a new congregation and will use our old church on Ward Street. They begin worship there this Sunday, Trinity Sunday. Let us pray for them in this new endeavor.”

St. Andrew’s nearest ecclesial neighbor, the First Baptist Church, also welcomed the Anglicans to the neighborhood. The pastor offered the use of his chapel should the Anglicans not be able to prepare Old St. Paul’s in time for Sunday worship. However, the Catholics and Anglicans worked together to prepare Old St. Paul’s with the Anglicans focusing on the sanctuary and the Catholics working on the parish hall.

A special unexpected visitor to their first liturgical celebration at Old St. Paul’s was ACNA Bishop Neil Lebhar of the Gulf Atlantic Diocese with whom the congregation is in active conversation about formally affiliating with ACNA. It is expected that the paperwork will eventually be submitted, but official membership cannot take place until the next synodical meeting in the fall. Until then, the bishop is taking them under his protective wing.

Bishop Lebhar is pleased with what he saw in south central Georgia. He met an enthusiastically upbeat and committed transplanting Anglican congregation focused on spreading the Gospel in Douglas and Coffee County. The bishop concelebrated the Service of Holy Communion with Fr. Mears, but did not preach. He was basically a special Sunday visitor, giving them his blessing. He later enjoyed refreshments with the priest and parishioners.

It was standing room only Sunday when 107 souls worshipped at the new St. Andrew’s location in the smaller wooden Catholic Church. Old St. Paul’s can comfortably seat 100.

“We went from Sunday at St. Andrew Episcopal to Sunday at St. Andrew’s Anglican,” Lott reported. “It was the most beautiful service ever. We knew we were at home.”

EPISCOPAL BISHOP SCOTT BENHASE REACTS

While the transition has gone smoothly, it has not been without wrinkles. Following the priest and his congregation’s graceful departure from the South Coffee Avenue location, Georgia Bishop Scott Benhase fired off a letter to those who remained charging that Fr. Mears had been less than honest with him about his intensions while defending The Episcopal Church’s stance on “lesser issues such as human sexuality;” claiming that an “unnecessary crisis has been manufactured at St Andrew’s;” and informing the remaining congregation that Trinity Sunday’s service would be conducted by Canon Logue using Rite II from the 1979 Prayer book.

Canon Logue also circulated a communiqué charging that when the St. Andrew’s parishioners departed they took with them a refrigerator that was erroneously believed to belong to the church. It has since been confirmed that the appliance was merely on loan to the Episcopal congregation and the misunderstanding was cleared up.

As with most spiritual divorces from The Episcopal Church, there was a degree of frustration, confusion, hurt feelings, sorrow, suffering, painful rumors and innuendos on all sides. Canon Logue wrote that “rumors fly faster than the speed of accuracy” while Fr. Mears is determined to move beyond that.

“I have been deeply touched by the out flow of love and support from our faithful family, our community and the many faithful disciples who have kept us in prayer,” said Fr. Mears who is moving forward with his parish. “I pray you will understand that at this time, it is most important for me and this church family to focus on our Lord and seeking His will for what lies ahead.”

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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