Praying for Answers
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Just last month, members of St. Stephen's Episcopal in Heathsville, Va., were one country church, planning the strawberry festival and the pancake breakfast fundraiser and kneeling side-by-side on handmade, embroidered prayer cushions in the 126-year-old sanctuary.
Today, St. Stephen's is divided, with congregants fighting over who gets to use the Victorian-style church, why the Episcopal sign out front was taken down, and who was allowed to cast ballots Dec. 17, the day the majority of St. Stephen's congregants voted to leave the Episcopal Church and join the Church of Nigeria. Eight other Virginia churches took the same step last month, seeking more conservative leadership. Even the 10 a.m. Thursday healing service, long a tradition at St. Stephen's, is now held in separate locations -- at the same time.
In the sanctuary: "I just keep praying for the church and the country," said an 84-year-old woman who grew up in St. Stephen's, raised her family in the church and was one of the 99 members who voted to leave, unable to tolerate those who felt "they could do whatever they wanted and still be a good Episcopalian."
In the Methodist church down the street: "I pray for the church . . . that reconciliation may become a reality," 12 worshipers read in unison during last week's healing service. They were among the 33 who had voted to remain Episcopalian and now worship with a priest who doesn't know their names and books that don't contain their liturgy.
Tensions at St. Stephen's, as at the other eight churches, had been building for years over a question roiling the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the global Anglican community: What does it mean to live according to scripture? Those who voted to leave think the Bible should be read literally, on the story of Jesus's resurrection and on issues such as homosexuality and salvation. Those who voted to stay believe there can be more than one way to interpret scripture.
The landscape got a bit tauter yesterday with the expiration of an agreement between the nine and the Virginia Diocese, which includes 182 churches. The two sides had agreed not to file lawsuits for 30 days after the votes were announced. Bishop Peter Lee last week refused to renew the "standstill" agreement and now is meeting with diocesan officials to decide their next move.
Yet the fallout has been particularly acute in Heathsville, a tiny town on Virginia's pastoral Northern Neck. Those who voted at St. Stephen's to stay Episcopalian were a quarter of the membership, a much larger percentage than at the other churches, and that group has already voted itself new leadership as it plans to rebuild its congregation and reoccupy the building. Small groups of Episcopalians at the other churches are just starting to organize.
But in a town of 5,000 people, the effect of the vote is different from that of the bustling D.C. suburbs, where the other churches are. It has meant tense small talk in line at the Food Lion and friction between longtime friends.
Barbara Tricarico, who voted to stay Episcopalian, breaks into tears when she looks at the cracked wooden sign her husband pulled out of the bed of a pickup truck: "St. Stephen's Episcopal Church." Tricarico just happened to see men removing it in the days after the vote, to replace it with a new sign: "St. Stephen's (Anglican)."
"I thought I was going to have a heart attack," she said, "and I don't have a heart problem. I just started bawling."
But it seems to make it worse, she says, when anyone says something about it.
"You know that expression 'least said, quickest mended'? These are watermen, farmers, doctors who have to see each other for the rest of their lives, so they don't say much," said Sandy Kirkpatrick, who launched the youth group at St. Stephen's and is now the senior warden of the Episcopal group. "Country people don't talk about these things."
So private and reserved were the St. Stephen's parishioners about the controversy, even as it unfolded over months and years, that many said they didn't even know who was on which side until the tally list was announced.
Kirkpatrick, who moved from Fairfax County to Heathsville 11 years ago, has had long conversations about the nuances of faith with Margaret Radcliffe, now senior warden of St. Stephen's (Anglican), who moved from Richmond a few years earlier. In the past, the women would write each other lengthy e-mails, sometimes in the middle of the night, about their very different views of the Bible, and they met regularly up until a lunch a few weeks before the vote.
Today the women communicate in the realm of officialdom, writing letters from their respective church positions as the two groups hash out whether they can share space while negotiations -- or litigation -- unfold far above their heads. "Your sister in Christ," Kirkpatrick's letters end; "Faithfully," end Radcliffe's.
Nothing has fueled tensions more than the dispute over space. Majority voters such as Radcliffe view last month's vote as a definitive end to a debate that had stretched on for years. Advised by attorneys representing all the nine breakaway congregations, they believe the church property is theirs and are willing to discuss sharing space with the Episcopalians only if the diocese returns to the negotiating table on all issues.
Until then, they will not allow the Episcopalians to use St. Stephen's as a group, though individuals are welcomed to services.
"It cannot be shared when things are in limbo, and that's the position we're in," said Ward LeHardy, a congregant serving as spokesman for the majority group. Such an arrangement "would complicate legal and spiritual aspects."
That resulted in Meade Kilduff, who was baptized at St. Stephen's in 1918, sitting down in the quaint, baby-blue sanctuary of the town's Methodist church for last week's Episcopal healing service. Tiny, with a coif of thick white hair, the 88-year-old Kilduff said she and one "very good friend" who voted the other way are simply not calling each other.
"Christmas was horrible," she said. It's bad in a small community, because we all go back so far together."
Jane Hubbard Blackwell, who lives one house down a dirt road from Tricarico, has been at St. Stephen's since she was a girl. The 84-year-old retired registrar of voters has served as senior warden, Sunday school teacher and newsletter editor, among other things. Sitting in the home she grew up in, on St. Stephen's Lane across a farm field from the church, she squeezes her hands into tight fists and takes a quick, sharp breath when she characterizes how she felt, voting to leave the Episcopal Church.
"I think most of us wish it would vanish," she said of the conflict, her eyes widening. In the months before the vote, and since, she never started discussions about it with other congregants.
"I really didn't want to get into a shouting match," she said. When her brother died this month, she received support from members of the other side; one delivered brownies, others sent cards. "This is painful, because we've been in and out of each other's houses."
Does she think they'll have that togetherness again someday? "I don't know."