VIRGINIA: Changed along the way, St. Stephen's comes home

By Emily Cherry
Posted Apr 2, 2012

Members of St. Stephen's process inside their church for the first time in five years on Palm Sunday. Photo/Emily Cherry

[Episcopal News Service] More than a few tears were shed and smiles shared by the members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Heathsville, Virginia, this Palm Sunday, following the resolution of a five-year legal dispute with another congregation over ownership of the property.

One of those members, Meade Kilduff, was baptized in the 131-year-old building in 1918. At the time, Kilduff’s mother traveled over two days by train and by boat in the dead of winter from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to her hometown of Heathsville for Meade’s baptism. Years later, Kilduff would return to raise a family – and to worship in St. Stephen’s.

That’s why this past weekend was a homecoming for Kilduff and other members of the congregation, as they returned to their historic church after worshiping in temporary spaces for the past five years. “I am so overwhelmed,” said Kilduff. “I didn’t realize how much I loved it until I came back. It is so beautiful.”

The return follows the Fairfax County Circuit Court’s ruling that seven congregations in which the majority of members and clergy left the Episcopal Church in 2006 and 2007 to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America must return all property to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia by April 30, 2012. St. Stephen’s is the first of four “continuing congregations” of Episcopalians to transition back to their parish home.

“When people go through painful experiences, especially painful experiences that have to do with the church, especially painful experiences that have to do with church conflict, it is easy for us to understand why people give up on faith, or at least give up on the church,” said the Rev. Lucia Lloyd, rector, in her Palm Sunday sermon. “But the folks who, for one reason or another, stick with faith or come back to it, and the folks who, for one reason or another, stick with church or come back to it, usually do find that we, walking in the way of the cross, find it none other than the way of life and peace. The whole journey has been wonderful.”

Parishioner Dawn Mahaffey agrees. “Looking back on this, it has been a blessing,” said Mahaffey. “We’ve come together. We’ve come to really understand what a church family is.”

That sense of family characterizes the members of St. Stephen’s. “The lay leadership that has emerged from dealing with adversity has been amazing,” said Lloyd. “These laypeople take initiative, come up with creative solutions to problems, and aren’t afraid of hard work to put them into effect.”

One of those “creative solutions” was finding a temporary worship space — first in a neighboring Methodist church, and later in what has come to be known as Chilton Chapel, a privately owned home that the St. Stephen’s parishioners transformed into a worship space. They tore up 50-year-old, wall-to-wall carpeting and then refinished the floors. They scraped seven layers of wallpaper off the walls. They painted, cleaned, designed and furnished. “We got dirty and grubby doing it,” said St. Stephen’s parishioner Sandra Kirkpatrick. “Almost every single one of us had an interest in that space.”

Sunday marked the start of a new chapter in the life of St. Stephen’s. Next weekend, parishioners will celebrate Easter Sunday in their historic church, and on April 14 they will invite members of the community and the diocese to join them in a special homecoming.

And they’ll continue their ministries and work as a community of faith. “We talk about our ‘spiritual journey’ and, for this congregation, that journey has been a physical reality,” said Lloyd. “This journey for us has been like walking a labyrinth. You wind around, not knowing where the twists and turns are going to take you next, or how long it will take, but you keep walking because you trust. And then you get back to the place you began, but along the way, as you walked and prayed through the uncertainty, you have been changed when you arrive back home.”

— Emily Cherry is the communications officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

Comments (15)

  1. Harry Denman says:

    What wonderful news. God is good to those who continue in the faith of the risen Christ. This may still be Lent, but this action deserves a geat “ALLELUIA!”

  2. David Charonis says:

    To have been born and reared in southern ways before relocating north, I can only apologize again and again for the serious pain and hurt that a VERY misguided Bob Duncan inflicted upon many in the United States from his base in Pittsburgh. Please know that our Diocese in Pittsburgh will next elect a truly Episcopal bishop… and, begin to recover, also.

    1. The Very Rev. Bruce D. McMillan says:

      I have been praying for you all in Pittsburgh for years now. You all have been an inspiration to the rest of us in the Episcopal Church. Thanks and God bless!

    2. David Shaw says:

      I remember very fondly the last great bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert B Appleyard. May the new bishop be filled with the grace and compassion he was.

  3. martha knight says:

    Almost 15 years ago I worshiped with the St. Stephen’s community feeling ever so loved and welcome. Thanks be to God you are home once again.
    Blessings during this Holy Week

  4. Doug Desper says:

    I am glad when reconciliation begins to take place, but let’s not pretend that this type of thing is over. While Bishop Duncan “from his base” may have been influential, that really doesn’t matter. That assumes that people are mere “sheeple”; mindless and unable to discern matters for themselves. People in Virginia and elsewhere discerned and acted. None were forced to listen to a few loud preachers or bishops. The arguments were convincing. There are some very real problems in TEC that have been unaddressed; namely the current cultural captivity that we find ourselves in. In the name of “progress” we have even gone so far as to allow the culture to dictate what marriage is and is not, rather than God’s Word. If we place more stock in the truth as we see it rather than the truth as revealed in Scripture then we will continue to decline at an alarming rate. We have lost 40%+ of us in a generation and there is no sign of slowing. The diocese has lost thousands of members; most of whom were praised for their vitality only a few years ago. To rejoice that there are nearly abandoned properties being barely filled is not heartening.

    1. Bryan Taylor says:

      You wrote:

      There are some very real problems in TEC that have been unaddressed; namely the current cultural captivity that we find ourselves in. In the name of “progress” we have even gone so far as to allow the culture to dictate what marriage is and is not, rather than God’s Word. If we place more stock in the truth as we see it rather than the truth as revealed in Scripture.

      REPLY: To begin at the end and work back, honesty requires one to admit, I think, that “the truth as revealed in Scripture” IS ALWAYS “the truth as we see it.” Scripture speaks to us and we respond (sometimes by not responding); unfortunately, Scripture does not reply to us and say, “Erm, that’s not the right response.” Which is not to say that the totality of Scripture, or other things in Scripture, often do provide the corrective. Actual living people either accept what they’re taught about the meaning of Scripture and tradition, or arrive at that or some other conclusion, some other way. There is no such thing as Scripture uninterpreted.

      As for “marriage,” the term is in fact nowhere defined in Scripture. If it were, you’d have a real problem with that in modern times, as polygamy is assumed throughout. The Torah, and later the writers of the Epistles, provide regulations to govern marriage (consanguinity rules, what ends a marriage other than death, what is the status of the divorced and the widowed, and so on). Nowhere is it written that marriage is always and only between one man and one woman. Cultural assumptions as to when a marriage occurs are taken as givens, to which instruction applies. Society (specifically the societies originally addressed by the Biblical writers) provides the initial definition from which point Scripture elaborates, comments, and instructs.

      This is not to say that Society is always right, or that culture dictates our beliefs. Really, that is insulting to the many thousands of Christians who have developed a different understanding which they believe to honor Scripture, tradition, and reason. It is irrelevant how the issue came to their attention initially. That is the fallacy of post hoc propter hoc; that is, that cultural change proceeds and therefore also causes the change that follows.

      Finally, the focus on this one issue (gay people and their relationships), affecting a very small percentage of people compared to the whole population of society or the Church, distorts and challenges your own conclusions. Jesus said very little about marriage or sex, and nothing at all about homosexuality. In the rest of the New Testament, it is a question of interpretation whether the writers addressed any concept of homosexual orientation or same-sex relationships, other than those of (often temple) prostitutes or rapists.

      But the question remains: do you distort the nature of the Church and the Scripture by giving the degree of emphasis on this one subset of doctrine that you do? By assuming that God does not speak sometimes through the reform movements of the larger culture, is there no danger of sinful pride? How can you be sure that TEC is in fact on the wrong course? Numbers? Really? Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, not count them. Change in a direction you see as culturally determined? We’re back to interpretation, yours or ours.

      Which is worse, heresy or schism? The great Councils of the Church risked schism for the sake of orthodoxy only over the gravest matters, such as the nature of Jesus and the Trinity. The Church Fathers typically viewed schism as the greater evil. Heresy can be rejected and recovered from–or later emerge as the “correct teaching” in later times. It need not destroy the unity of the church, except in matters of the utmost importance, the kinds of issues addressed by the Councils of the undivided Church. Schism, on the other hand, destroys the peace and unity of the Body of Christ in precisely the way prohibited by the teachings of the Epistles: the ear is as much a part of the Body as the eye; every part has its function in the whole; let love and kindness prevail in all things. The Church has a duty to “police” its own ranks in matters of doctrine and morals, but without degenerating into factionalism. Even the excommunicate can still be saved. But schism institutionalizes whatever division there is, and it’s almost impossible to restore unity once that happens. Consider how long it took American Protestant denominations to recover from the breach caused by our Civil War.

      I do not dismiss your sincerity in all the things you think were justified, but I reject your methods. In the end, it is for me a matter of law and order, and that has been the basis of the church’s resorting to litigation over property. We did not kick anyone out of TEC because they disagreed with the majority in our polity. We don’t sue to get properties back in TEC hands because of your beliefs, but because of fiduciary responsibility. Clergy aren’t deposed because of their beliefs, but because of their violations of church law on other matters. Usually: I live in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, so I know that local ordinaries can and do abuse their power sometimes, on both sides.

      Clearly, TEC frames the questions and pursues its answers in a way that some dislike. But it is incumbent on them to either remain in full communion despite their differences, or to remove themselves to another Christian fellowship that better suits them. But their decision to go does not exempt them from the rules that the larger denomination has in place regarding its property and its governance. The litigation is unfortunate, but has generally sustained TEC’s rights in matters of property and “discipline.”

      In conclusion, I urge you to think of those you disagree with, as we try to think of you: that you are sincere and reasonable, just not right as to our human judgment. I give you and all I disagree with that benefit of the doubt, and further the benefit of the doubt that you do not neglect to care for the poor and suffering, and otherwise honor the name of Christ in your lives. Can you not return that presumption of good faith and goodwill?

  5. Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice! Replant, rebuild, renew! As a member of a 400 plus and growing- strong congregation that openly welcomes ALL (what, you think Episcopal church signs lie?) and as a proverbial “southern belle, cradle” I am thrilled for the parishioners of St. Stephen’s and for the direction our church is taking. The Episcopal Church has always been a bellwhether of progress. Once we realize that this wonderful church is not our parents’ or grandparents’ church, nor should it be….

    It is heartening to see others of steadfast faith willing to risk all for openess and change. We can spend our energy arguing cultural biases or we can move forward in faith and remain cutting edge Christians. I see St. Stephen’s has chosen the latter!

  6. Doug Desper says:

    For my friend Virginia:

    I’ll bet that we could sit across from each other with good Virginia-style tea and talk about this one! I’m glad for your happiness in your church, but now I’m confused, so please help. One very major reason that the litigation by the diocese against the dissenting churches was pursued was that the diocese represented that they had a duty to past members who had dutifully established the churches and properties. Your view is that …”The Episcopal Church has always been a bellwhether of progress. Once we relaize that this wonderful church is not our parents’ or grandparents’ church, nor should it be….” Which is it? At what point do we move away from established faith and practice for the alternative priority of being above all else, a “bellwhether of progress”? This is what those thousands (and more) worshipers couldn’t get around. At what point does the Church leave behind the received faith and practice for something that it has never been anywhere on the globe and not called heresy there. Should we redefine marriage just because the culture wants it? Should we, in the view of a bishop, gladly embrace all sexualities because we haven’t discovered them all yet? At what point is this no longer Christ-centered, Christ-only progress, and instead just deteriorating into the culture that Jesus came to change and redeem?

  7. Josh Thomas says:

    Doug Draper: The Episcopal Church is the counter-cultural body here, not the schismatics. The latter group upholds the standard culture that criminalized and persecuted Gay people, while telling us over and over again “this is how it’s always been” and “scripture says so.” You don’t get to have it both ways. Down doesn’t turn to up just because you switched the directional sign.

    Here we are, surrounded by this gun-toting, immigrant-bashing, money-worshiping culture, but Episcopalians say, “This is not the path of salvation.” It would be a surprise if our numbers were growing with that kind of message, but persist we shall, even when the Holy Spirit leads us to unpopularity. Jesus didn’t win the Gallup Poll on Good Friday either.

    1. Doug Desper says:

      For Josh:
      Our heritage includes Articles of Religion that note historically that churches in certain times and places “hath erred”. It also includes the needed Reformation, but a outlier hanging along in those same years in the person of Henry VIII who tossed Scripture, clerics, and Councils aside until he got the results that he wanted. As a Church without a one-person/final word on all matters, we are burdened with being a Reformation Church: one that takes the Bible as the start and ultimate guide, and interpreted in an accountable community. Richard Hooker rejected the “private revelations” of the Pope apart from the Scripture as well as certain utterings of enthusiasts of his time who declared that “we have found something, but alas it’s not Biblical”. The Episcopal Church has a decision to make: are we a Reformation Church that takes the Bible seriously and also rejects private revelations that the rest of the Church doesn’t agree with, or are we a Church that casts about until we find the reason for the results that we want? No one answers at what point we stop being serious Bible students living in community with a global Church and instead devolve into a Henry who pushes all aside for the results that are desired.

      The culture of privatized individualism over living in community should be rejected or else we become Pelagian; a Church of individuals with their own revelations.

      In order to approve same-sex marriage, we will knock over the Scriptures, ignore the witness of a global Church, change the canons, change the Catechism, and change the marriage Service.

      So: how can you explain to the world and our pews that THEY are the ones who have changed and are no longer loyal Episcopalians? Should people just keep going along with these private inspirations and revelations and then be told that if they don’t, just leave all their stuff and leave?

  8. Joan Gundersen says:

    Folks, Let’s not use a simple joyous return to rightful owners of property kept by a group that tried to ignore the plain reading of property canons of the Church and diocese which they swore to uphold in order to be ordained or serve in church office and who ignored the previous interpretations of secular statutes on church property, despite warnings about how this would turn out. Don’t use this occasion to rehash other debates. The fact is that when members of a hierarchical church leave FOR WHATEVER REASON, (liberal, conservative, theological, secular, etc.) they are free to go, but not take the property. The St. Stephen’s Episcopalians have been in exile from a worship space that was built by Episcopalians for Episcopal worship. The testing that came during that exile strengthened them. Now they are back in their beloved sacred space. Hallelujah! I wish the ACNA/CANA group that has finally relinquished the space no harm. They are now free to build their own traditions on their own, and to develop their own sacred space.

  9. Doug Desper says:

    Any takers for the question that I keep posing? How far should people have to happily accept the private revelations and teachings of today’s TEC leadership?
    How can a theologically revisionist leadership in TEC pursue changes to, say marriage, define it for what it has never been anywhere at any time in the Church, change the canons, change the catechism, not be content until a new Service is designed, and then claim that all of the those who oppose it are not loyal and should just keep accepting such changes? That has been the general course in TEC for a generation. The more that such revisionisim takes place the more intolerant the leadership has become for anyone who opposes it. Remember the tolerance that was designed for those who opposed women’s ordination? How loyal Episcopalians were told that it was an option that they should allow, but would never be forced to accept? Come forward a few years and now there is no room to oppose it. Fast forward a few years and today’s loyal Episcopalians who do not accept ordination and marriage of homosexuals are being likewise marginalized. Why is it that when segments of the Church do not agree with these private inspirations of TEC’s leadership that they get marginalized and told that THEY are the ones who are breaking the union of the Church – and that they can go – and leave the fruits of their work behind? For who?

  10. Chris Butler says:

    Apart from the controversies already addressed by other respondents, I would have appreciated some mention in this article about where the ANCA congregation moved to. Although they’re not going to embrace me as a member (I’m in a S/S marriage), I still want them to be able to gather to worship, and would like to know that they can.

    1. Joan Gundersen says:

      According to the ACNA/C ANA congregation’s web site they are now meeting at a local Baptist Church. They had enough warning that this was coming to arrange a site.

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