Correction to This Article
Rev. John Thomas Sheehan's age was misidentified earlier. He is 62-years-old.

A Constant Episcopal Church in Va., Now Called to Leave?

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009

They stayed as other churches left.

They stayed through the ordination of a gay bishop, and the lengthy arguments that tested long-standing beliefs and frayed friendships. All the while, the congregation of the tiny church in rural Loudoun County kept the word "Episcopal" on the Sunday bulletins because members believed it was God's will.

But last week, as their denomination inched closer to ordaining more gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions, parishioners at the Church of Our Redeemer were left to wonder: How much longer could they remain Episcopalians?

It is a dilemma facing theologically conservative churches across the country as the denomination grows increasingly accepting toward homosexuality, pushing some parishes away from the Episcopal faith and leaving others, such as Our Redeemer, on the fence.

"It's not something you consider lightly, leaving. It would be painful and affect a lot of relationships," said church member Michael Hollinger, 37. "But at the same time, the decisions they're making in the larger church are getting harder and harder to accept."

At the heart of that struggle is Our Redeemer's priest, the Rev. John Thomas Sheehan, 62, who spent last week studying the resolutions recently passed at his denomination's national convention, parsing each sentence for meaning and intent. He has talked to fellow clergymen and asked God for guidance through the uncertainty.

Leaning on the Lord has long been his solace. The first time God spoke to him, Sheehan said, he was 15. It was during a dream and only a single word: "Come." He believed God was calling him to priesthood, a path Sheehan decided not to follow. Two decades later, married with kids and working as a political affairs director on Capitol Hill, Sheehan saw God again in a dream. This time, the call was too strong to resist.

In 2001, after three years in seminary, Sheehan arrived at Our Redeemer, a small rural church steeped in history. It began as an Episcopal church in 1890, when a strip of land that once belonged to President James Monroe was set aside for a house of worship.

Since then, the unchanging nature of faith has defined the congregation.

As other churches modernized -- bringing in hip worship bands and loosening liturgy -- Our Redeemer stuck with its old hymns and routines dictated by the Book of Common Prayer, a collection of service instructions that dates back to the mid-1500s.

Even as the parish has grown, tripling in the past eight years, new members have asked church leaders not to change a thing. The world, they said, is in such constant flux that they are comforted by a church with an unchanging foundation.

But their denomination has changed rapidly.


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