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Monday, February 19, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A church torn in two

Seattle Times staff reporter

OAK HARBOR — For decades, a sign outside this light-filled, two-story house of worship proclaimed it "St. Stephen's Episcopal Church" — spiritual home to a congregation of longtime friends and neighbors who often watched movies together, walked the beach or shared meals in this middle-class military town on Whidbey Island.

But that was before the rift — before deeply held differences over the ordination of a gay bishop officially ended the congregation as it had existed since 1952.

Now, in its place are two distinct congregations — a small one that remains in the U.S. Episcopal Church and a larger one that has severed ties and aligned itself with a conservative Brazilian bishop in the Anglican Communion.

While the two groups worship on the same property, their former closeness is gone, replaced by hard feelings.

Decades-long friendships have been strained or lost. Some in the Episcopal congregation feel wounded by how they say they were treated. Some in the Anglican congregation resent being considered extreme.

"It's like a divorce or something," said Roger Vehorn, a 60-year-old engineering manager and member of the Anglican congregation, which has renamed itself St. Stephen's Anglican Church. "When your family splits, it's painful."

Church structure


Origins: The Anglican Communion, which traces its roots to the Church of England, is composed of self-governing branches in 38 countries or regions.

In the United States, that branch is called the Episcopal Church.

Leadership: The Anglican Communion has no central authority figure like the pope in the Catholic Church. Although the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, holds moral authority, he does not hold governing authority over the other 37 branches.

The branch churches have certain core beliefs in common but vary widely in practices, such as on the issue of ordaining women.

Anglican Communion membership: About 77 million, making it one of the largest Christian denominations worldwide.

Episcopal Church structure: The Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members, has about 7,400 congregations in 110 dioceses nationwide. Each diocese is largely autonomous. Some allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex unions, for instance, while others do not.

Episcopal Church breakaways: About 45 congregations have broken away from the Episcopal Church to align with overseas bishops.

Episcopal Church in Washington: The Olympia Diocese has some 34,000 members in about 100 congregations in Western Washington. The Spokane Diocese has about 7,000 members in 42 congregations in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.

Sources: Episcopal Dioceses of Olympia and Spokane, Episcopal News Service

The two congregations stagger their services, with the Anglicans in the main sanctuary and the Episcopalians usually in a small chapel out back. The local Episcopal bishop hopes this arrangement eventually will lead to a reconciliation.

That the two groups are even sharing a space is unusual. But the clash of values leading to their split is not.

In fact, it's a clash that's playing out nationwide within the Episcopal Church, and worldwide in the Anglican Communion, an affiliation of 38 self-governing branches, with the Episcopal Church as the U.S. branch.

At the heart of the conflict are two beliefs:

One is that Episcopalians, above all, have a broad arm span that embraces a wide variety of views — including those for or against the ordination of gay men and lesbians.

This wide embrace encompasses those who read Scripture more literally and those who balance the authority of Scripture with reason, experience and tradition, as most in the church do, said the Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton, the recently elected rector of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church.

"Some of the sorrow around this split is that the Episcopal value of wide brackets for differences of opinion has broken," she said.

The other, opposing belief is that Episcopalians must more strictly follow biblical and church teachings, including those that say homosexual behavior is sinful.

"If you can't refer to Scripture, to the faith the church has taught for 20 centuries, to the teachings of the global communion, then what are you left with?" asked the Rev. Paul Orritt, rector since November of St. Stephen's Anglican Church.

The breaking point

Timeline


1998: Bishops in the Anglican Communion issue a resolution saying homosexual relations are "incompatible with Scripture" and advising against blessing same-sex unions and ordaining noncelibate gays.

2003: In June, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elects as bishop the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who becomes the communion's first openly gay bishop. In August, church leaders confirm the election. Conservative bishops strongly oppose the confirmation and talk of a schism.

Jan. 2004: The Anglican Communion Network, an affiliation of conservative dioceses and parishes in the U.S., launches in January and now represents 10 conservative U.S. dioceses and some 900 parishes.

Oct. 2004: An Anglican Communion report reprimands the Episcopal Church for ignoring worldwide church opposition in confirming Robinson, and calls for the U.S. church to consider a moratorium on electing noncelibate gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions.

Oct. 2004: St. Stephen's church in Oak Harbor and St. Charles church in Poulsbo announce they are breaking off from the Episcopal Church to align with a conservative Anglican bishop in Brazil.

June 2006: The Episcopal Church elects the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as its leader, making her the first woman to lead an Anglican province. Conservative bishops oppose her support of blessings for same-sex couples and of Robinson's confirmation.

Dec. 2006: The San Joaquin Diocese in California votes to secede from the U.S. church; another vote is needed to finalize the split.

Dec. 2006: The Olympia Diocese announces agreement allowing the two congregations at St. Stephen's to share facilities, and allowing St. Charles Anglican Church to continue in its Poulsbo facility.

Feb. 2007: Regional leaders of the Anglican Communion gather in Tanzania to discuss, among other things, the Episcopal Church's stance on ordaining gays and blessing same-sex couples.

Sources: The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, St. Stephen's and St. Charles Anglican churches, Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, The Lambeth Conference Official Website, Anglican Communion Network

For some at St. Stephen's, the break was a logical progression. For others, it came suddenly and wrenchingly.

Vehorn joined the Episcopal Church about 20 years ago because he loved its beliefs and liturgy. But over the years, it's drifted too far away from biblical teachings, he believes.

When national church leaders voted in 2003 to approve the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, it became obvious to Vehorn that the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church was moving in opposition to what most Anglicans worldwide believe.

Some Anglican bishops in Africa and South America were especially critical, saying the U.S. church's actions could lead to a break in the 77 million-member Anglican Communion.

So far in the U.S., a small fraction of parishes has broken ties with the Episcopal Church to align with Anglican bishops overseas. These parishes believe the Episcopal Church, by its actions, is the one departing from the communion and church tradition. They believe that by aligning with the Anglican leaders overseas — since there are no Anglican dioceses in the U.S. — they are remaining true to the faith.

In Washington state, one other parish — St. Charles in Poulsbo — also has aligned with the same Brazilian bishop as St. Stephen's. They affiliated with the Rt. Rev. Robinson Cavalcanti, who, unlike some other conservative bishops, was willing to take on those parishes headed by a woman — as St. Stephen's was at the time — or by a divorced and remarried man — as St. Charles is.

Before the split at St. Stephen's, congregation members struggled, with some caught in the middle and "so pained that they just want to make the pain go away any way they can," Vehorn said.

It was around then that Sandy Taylor, a 64-year-old retired civil servant and member of St. Stephen's for almost 30 years, began feeling like an outsider in her own church.

She knew she was more liberal than many at St. Stephen's but had always treasured how they could kneel together to receive communion.

But by late 2003, she said, when she and others who did not want the church to split tried to get clear answers about what was going on, "we were talked to as if we were not Christian. We had the Bible waved in our faces more than once, then they would say something along the lines of, 'You're denying this is the true word of God.' It tore my heart."

Some opposed to a break said they were never informed when the time came for a vote.

Hurt from those days still lingers. When Taylor used to walk into the church, a sense of peace and love filled her. "I don't find that anymore. It's just a building now."

And things are sometimes strained with several close friends — two couples who are now members of the Anglican congregation. They still see each other socially, but deeper talk about faith — so central to their lives — is now off-limits.

"We don't have that kind of closeness anymore," she said.

Among the Anglicans, Vehorn finds hurtful the accusations that things were done in secret. He says church leaders held a series of forums on the issues and believes they made a strong effort to contact all members about the vote.

"Could there have been people missed?" he said. "I don't doubt it. But I really doubt that was intentional."

Diana Edwards, 70, St. Stephen's church secretary for 27 years and now part of the Anglican congregation, misses the Episcopalians who used to have lunch or work on projects with her.

She sometimes runs into them at the grocery store or on the street. "You always say you're glad to see each other, hug each other. But inside, you know it's not the same."

"Kind of like a death"

For those Episcopalians who disagreed with the break, regrouping was difficult.

They were scattered, left without a church. Some went to Episcopal churches in other towns or to Methodist or Lutheran churches nearby.

"People were mad and, I think, sad," said Wilma Patrick, 87, a member of St. Stephen's for more than 50 years. "It's kind of like a death."

Some were angry that the Anglican congregation took over both the name and the building. The sign in front of the church now reads "St. Stephen's Anglican Church."

And some thought breaking off was simply wrong.

"We believe the Episcopal Church is a family that you belong to," Taylor said. "And if you have a problem in your family, you stay and you work it through."

For instance, not everyone in the Episcopal congregation agrees on whether gay relationships are sinful, she said. But they share a belief in larger biblical teachings on social justice and loving one another.

Gradually, the remaining Episcopalians came together, meeting first monthly for services, then weekly in one another's homes.

The St. Stephen's chapel, where they started holding services in January, can seat only 30 — big enough for now to house their 25 members. They're hoping to grow enough to move their services into the main sanctuary. Just recently, they learned of a family with children who might be joining, so they're talking about starting a Sunday school.

The past two years haven't been all heartache, Taylor said. "We're so much closer to each other than we ever were." And now, she said, "we're pretty much ready to move on."

Those in the Anglican congregation, too, have seen benefits.

There's a greater understanding of who they are as a church, said Vehorn. "It's been like an infusion of mission and purpose." And the 150-member congregation is growing.

The agreement both congregations came to with the Olympia Diocese, which claims ownership of the property, calls for them to share the facilities for about eight years. Bishop Vincent Warner, who's based in Seattle, hopes that during that time, those in the national and international denomination, as well as at St. Stephen's, can work out their differences.

Members of both congregations say that could be difficult, given the deep divide.

Throughout the process that led to the agreement, there was pressure, from both inside and outside the two congregations, not to co-exist in a single building, said Vehorn, who served on the negotiation committee. Some Anglicans didn't want to share the space, while some Episcopalians thought they should fight to hold on to the property.

For now, said Vehorn, "I think we're very serious about trying to live with some uncomfortable situations in order to try and make this work."

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

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