OHIO: Episcopal Churches split

david at virtueonline.org david at virtueonline.org
Fri Aug 12 10:49:44 EDT 2011

OHIO: Episcopal Churches split 
Splits in Episcopal Church -- both within and from the Diocese -- could predict the future for other denominations

August 02, 2011

Christ Church Episcopal in Hudson split in half 8 years ago when parishioners disagreed on the ramifications of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson's consecration.

Splits within the Episcopal Church continue to play out in Northeast Ohio - in the pews and in the courtroom. And that may forecast what will happen with other denominational churches as theological differences play out. WKSU's Kabir Bhatia reports on different paths some churches are choosing.

For Christ Church in Hudson, the split came from within. Half the congregation left in 2003 after an openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, was ordained in New Hampshire. They set up a new church across town, Holy Trinity Anglican.  At the same time, entire congregations of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Akron and St. Luke's in Fairlawn left the Diocese of Ohio. The pastor of St. Luke's, Mike Kraynak says Robinson's ordination was one of several concerns. 

"One thing I believe is really tragic is the gay community gets blamed sometimes because it makes headlines -- that this separation is about homosexuality. Our decision to leave the Episcopal Church was really a result of several decades of drifting apart of theological understandings, such as the divinity of Christ, or the nature of salvation..."

The split meant moving St. Luke's spiritual affiliation across the world, first to the Anglican Church of Bolivia, then to Nigeria and eventually to the newly formed Anglican Church of North America.But it wasn't until the breakaways tried to transfer buildings and property as well that the Diocese sued. And now a Cuyahoga County judge has decided -- at least when it comes to the Episcopal church in Ohio - what was in the Diocese stays in the Diocese. 

The Rev. James Turrell of the University of the South says it's a decision that could impact other churches that have a hierarchy that's looser than the Roman Catholic Church, but tighter than nondenominational congregations. 

"The principle is, in the Episcopal Church, that the congregation holds the property in trust for the Diocese and for the Episcopal Church. Large numbers of individuals may leave from a given parish, but the property remains with the larger body, with the Diocese."

But St. Luke's and Holy Spirit didn't accept that argument without going to court.  The Diocese isn't talking about the case, saying it agreed with the breakaway churches not to speak publicly about it. But Kraynak says parishioners were the ones who built the church.

"The congregation at St. Luke's, built and paid for entirely, without any financial assistance from the Diocese, our current property. So there's a difficulty in moving forward from there and letting that go. What the world doesn't need is another situation where a Church is fighting a church in a lawsuit. We really know that a Church is the people, it is the community, it's not a place and it's not a building..."

So, Kraynak and the others have accepted the court decision and moved on.

In fact, Holy Spirit's priest, the Rev. Scott Souders, moved his church in the middle of a service. "We said 'take your chair and move to the truck waiting outside, and we're gonna caravan over to the new place'. There was just such joy as we moved to the new place. There was such joy as we left, and when we got there and people started to bring their chairs from the truck, there was such a sense of 'God had moved from one place and was ahead of us, going into that other place'..."

Holy Spirit had been on Buchtel Avenue since 1985. It's lunch and Bible sharing programs made it a pillar of an inner city neighborhood near the University of Akron. Now it's 2.5 miles away, in Bethel Church's community center - providing the same services but on a smaller scale. Christ Church Episcopal in Hudson ITSELF is smaller, since half the congregation split off eight years ago. 

Kathy Bergin-Johnson and Kim Freborg found themselves on opposite sides of the aisle, and eventually on opposite sides of town. Freborg was among the group that left to form Holy Trinity Anglican Church, which opposed Bishop Robinson's ordination. Starting fresh, with no property, parishioners avoided the legal claims of the Diocese. 

"It boiled down to being fairly black and white. For others I know it was more difficult. It came down to... we needed to go... we needed to go. And that was just the only way it was going to work..."

Kathy Bergin-Johnson stayed with Christ Church - and, by extension, the Diocese. She agrees the split was inevitable.

"I'm not sure our own parish could have been kept the way it was and been healed. But it was such a deep reaction, and such a knee-jerk reaction, and it happened really fast. There was informal discussion in the parking lot, but it was like people had already planted their flag and taken their side and no one discussed it past that..."

Both women agree that it would have been nice for breakaway congregations, like St. Luke's and Holy Spirit, to keep their property, but understand that Church law - and the court decision - dictate otherwise.

Similar court cases have played out differently in other states. In Virginia, for example, the breakaways won, then the Diocese won on appeal. A re-trial just concluded and a decision isn't expected before the end of the year.

Said one reader, "The Episcopal Church in Ohio is self-destructing: its clergy is inept, and the church has turned its back on its historical traditions."


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