The all-white congregation of a rural Prince George's County Eposcopal Church is being pressured by the Washington Episcopal Diocese to give up the church it has occupied for 119 years to a black congregation whose own nearby chapel burned down in November.
The action has angered both the blacks, whose plea for a new church to be built at the site of the old has been rejected, and the whites, who say they want to remain at the old church and share it with their black neighbors.
Under the plan proposed by the diocese, the white Aquasco church would be leased to the black congregation exclusively for five years. The whites would attend another white church six miles away.
The parishioners are seemingly caught in the crosswinds of tradition and change, tradition rooted in the Old South and the changes brought about by the civil rights movement and the recent renewed interest on the part of blacks in a separate black identity.
Since the fire, which destroyed the 101-year-old black church, the white church has lent its facilities to the black churchgoers. The white members now say they're willing to merge the two groups into one church, a notion unthinkable in the racially segregated Southern Maryland of only a few years ago.
That solution appears to now be unacceptable to both the blacks and the diocese.
The diocese says that such mergers have generally resulted in blacks dropping out of the Episcopal Church altogether. The burned black church, St. Phillip's, takes on black church, St. Phillip's, takes on added importance in the eyes of church officials because it is the only remaining black Episcopal church in Southern Maryland where once there were as many as four.
To the members of the predominantly black congregation, St. Phillip's is their "home" church, its cemetery the last resting place of many of their relatives. White parishioners of St. Mary's Chapel profess similar family ties to their Church.
In both graveyards can be found reminders of the area's Old South heritage: at St. Phillip's can be found the grave of Susan Perry, a black woman born in Charles County in 1826 in the slavery era, while at St. Mary's are the graves of men who fought for the Confederate Army during the Civil War, their graves marked with bas relief Confederate flags.
The two churches considered merging a few years ago but rejected the idea at the time, according to Elnora M. Pinkney, a retired Charles County educator who is vice chairman of the St. Phillip's chapel committee. "Neither one wanted to give up what they had," she said.
"Naturally, the St. Mary's people don't want to give up their building, and I can see why. Their burial ground is there," Mrs. Pinkney said. "I can't blame them for that."
"I've known quite a few people at St. Phillip's all their lives," said William Sidnor Chichester, a lifelong Aquascan who sells hardware throughout Southern Maryland. "They were all raised out in the country. They're all nice people." However, Chichester is opposed to the diocese plan. "My father is buried at St. Mary's. My grandparents are buried down here. I've been here all my life. I think everybody feels the same way.
The diocese plan is for the white Aquascans to attend St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Baden, a brick structure built in 1733. Both St. Mary's and St. Paul's are part of St. Paul's Parish, one of the 30 original ones established in Maryland in 1692. A parish is financially independent of the diocese. It is run by its own board of vestrymen.
St. Phillip's while appearing to operate as a full fledged congregation, is a "mission" of the Washington diocese, dependent on it for money and ultimate direction.
In seeking to carry out its current plans, the diocese can only "prompt" St. Paul's Parish to accept its proposal. Legally, however, it can - and has so far - rejected the wishes of St. Phillip's parishioners that a new building be erected on or near its present site with fire insurance money, anticipated to be as much as $100,000.
In St. Phillip's membership poll last month, only six favored merger with St. Mary's, and only one favored the diocese leading plan, while 104 said they wanted a new church built for St. Phillip's.
Since the November church fir and the invitation from St. Mary's to worship with its members, about 10 blacks loyal to the departed white pastor have participated in the white-led service while 50 more have held their own service afterwards.
As another alternative, St. Mary's offered the St. Phillip's group use of the brick parish hall located behind the church. The Rev. Kenneth D. Higginbotham, a black diocesan official who came to Washington in 1970 from Worcester, Mass., and also opposes the merger, termed this "a step backward in race relations, having blacks worship in back."
"Especially down there in the country," he said, there exists "the old-fashioned race relationship syndrome of white superiority and blacks not being accustomed to take power and being more submerged than merged."
"Although it's my personal feeling there are many capable black people in that congregation who could assume authority in a unified church if given the opportunity," he said, "you'd need great clerical leadership to pull off a merger, any merger."
That is what the Rev. Elmer Witmer, newly employed vicar of St. Paul's, hopes to provide. The answer, he said, is to appoint St. Phillip's people "to some authority positions in the parish."