For SC Episcopalians, a break from lifelong homes

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Associated Press

Posted on January 10, 2013 at 6:34 PM

CONWAY, S.C. (AP) — CONWAY, S.C. (AP) — Beyond the headlines, the story of the Diocese of South Carolina's split from the national Episcopal church is the story of people like Rebecca Lovelace.

For most of her 64 years, she worshipped at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in this quiet farming town and bedroom community about a dozen miles from the high-rise condominiums of Myrtle Beach.

That was until about three months ago, when Lovelace and a small group of other parishioners decided they could not go along when their church followed the Diocese of South Carolina in breaking ties with the national church over ordination of gays and other issues.

Lovelace told her priests she couldn't stay: "I really truly felt like there was a death in the family."

Now, her fledgling congregation of about 35 people known as the Conway Worship Group gathers each Sunday at the chapel at Coastal Carolina University. Usually with a retired priest or one on loan from another church, they pray, sing, celebrate communion and make plans for the future.

The schism has been years in the making, dating to the national church's consecration of its first openly gay bishop in 2003, which upset conservative Episcopalians.

"I think everybody reached a point where they couldn't go any further," said Dan Ennis, one of the organizers of the new congregation and who is dean of the university's College of Humanities and Fine Arts. "A lot of us saw this coming and a lot of us dreaded it, but now at least we know what to do."

The diocese in eastern South Carolina had 70 congregations with about 29,000 parishioners. It dates to the 1700s and is one of the originals that joined others to form the Episcopal Church.

The dispute isn't over yet, now that the breakaway diocese has sued the national church. It is asking a judge to declare that the national church has no right to either the identity of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina or its property.

"We seek to protect more than $500 million in real property, including churches, rectories and other buildings that South Carolinians built, paid for, maintained and expanded — and in some cases died to protect — without any support from The Episcopal Church," said the Rev. Jim Lewis, an assistant to Bishop Mark Lawrence.

One expert likened the fight to the final days of the Civil War: a lingering skirmish after years of controversy among Episcopalians that will have little effect on the national church.

"At Appomattox, Grant and Lee signed the final surrender but there were places where the fighting went on for months. The news didn't reach Arkansas and Texas the war was over. I think in South Carolina you are seeing something like that," said Frank Kirkpatrick a professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and author of "The Episcopal Church in Crisis: How Sex, the Bible and Authority are Dividing the Faithful."

He estimates perhaps 5 percent of Episcopalians nationally may have left the church in recent years because of the theological disputes. He says that figure is likely less than 8 percent if one includes those who simply stopped attending services, but didn't formally leave.

Though their numbers are few nationally, South Carolina believers on either side of the split have been forced to find new identities apart from the churches they grew up in.

The Conway group has used donations from other national churches to get started on their own. Each Sunday uses a simple stoneware chalice, not the silver one most congregants were used to, for the communion wine.

One church in Virginia sent a bottle of wine to use for communion, "lots of Hershey kisses and some Kleenex for the tears they know we probably shed. But there is a light on the other side," Lovelace said.

She has no animosity toward her friends in her former congregation.

"They are doing what they have to do. I respect the depth of their convictions. I don't agree with it but hopefully they know I'm doing what I feel called to do," she added. "I never heard a reason good enough to make me leave the national church."

Ennis noted that Bishop Mark Lawrence has said the national church is spreading a "false Gospel of indiscriminate inclusivity."

"I thought we are all going to be held to account so if I'm going to bet my soul, I'd rather be more inclusive than not inclusive," Ennis said.

To the south, in Edisto Beach, about 40 people have left the local Episcopal church to start a worship group and form their own congregation affiliated with the national church.

Lovelace's sister, Gretchen Smith, who grew up in the Conway church, has worshipped in Edisto for the past eight years.

"We've seen this coming for years. We maintained a presence there and worshipped there until it was clear we could no longer do it," she said. Right now the worship group is meeting in homes but, after the first of the year, it hopes to find space at a local civic club.

Back in Conway at a service earlier this month, the Rev. Dan Lynch, a retired priest from Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., told the congregation of 45 people that God is ultimately in control.

"President Obama is not in control. The Republican Congress is not in control. God is in control of your future and your present," he said.

"Too many doors have doors have opened for us for God not to be in control here," Lovelace agreed later.

Coastal Carolina's nondenominational chapel even included the kneelers that are used in Episcopal services.

"That was a sign to me that God was here and this is where we needed to be," she said.

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