MYRTLE BEACH — The bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina will be in Myrtle Beach Sunday to conduct services at a meeting of one of the newest worship communities formed since the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina split from the national church nearly a year ago.
“It’s just an annual visit,” said the Right Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
In many ways that is true, agreed Rick Stall, one of the leaders of the new community. But in at least one way, the confirmation of two young people into The Episcopal Church during Sunday’s service, the visit will be another step in a journey whose end is at least years in the future.
After the service, Stall said, Bishop vonRosenberg will speak with worship community members about the process of becoming a full-fledged Episcopal parish.
Most of the 30 to 40 people who attend the new community’s Sunday services are former members of Trinity Episcopal Church — now just Trinity Church — and, like Stall, did not feel comfortable with the conservative theology of the breakaway group.
The two sides split over things such as the national church’s ordination of a gay bishop in New Hampshire and the blessing of gay unions, but conservative Episcopalians had been drifting away from the main church for some time.
The split of the South Carolina diocese was the fifth nationwide, and those on both sides of the fence locally say it has been painful to break relationships that may have stood for decades, even generations.
“It’s much like a divorce,” said the Rev. J.T. Jeffords, minister at St. Paul’s Church in Conway, which was formerly St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. “Everyone is affected.”
“In these situations, even if you win, you lose,” said Dan Ennis, dean of the Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts and one of the leaders of the group of Episcopalians who left St. Paul’s last year and has now formed the community of St. Anne’s.
The next step
VonRosenberg said St. Anne’s worship community is ready to take the next step in its journey, which Ennis said it will do when it asks the church next year to recognize it as a mission congregation. St. Anne’s members already have incorporated and adopted bylaws in anticipation of one day becoming a parish.
If the mission status is granted, St. Anne’s may still receive financial aid from The Episcopal Church, but Ennis said the 120-member St. Anne’s community won’t need it. Members hope to be granted designation as a parish several years down the road.
Stall, an 18-year member at Trinity Episcopal, said he stayed with the church as tensions built before the breakaway, hoping a split wouldn’t happen.
“I stuck it out through 2012,” he said.
He then went to services at Myrtle Beach Presbyterian or Episcopal and churches of other denominations when he was out of town. Some area Episcopalians attended services at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in North Myrtle Beach or Holy Cross Faith Memorial Episcopal Church in Pawleys Island, where congregations voted to remain with The Episcopal Church.
Stall said he and some other former Trinity Episcopal members began holding monthly services with support of the clergy in private homes. On Aug. 4, the group moved to weekly services at the Coastal Carolina University Education Center on U.S. 17 Bypass.
Stall said his worship community is getting a lot of encouragement from Episcopalians around the country. Area Episcopal churches help the group with money and materials for holding services. He said services average an
attendance of about 30, but he didn’t expect the community would swell during the summer vacation season.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said of the number of people who will join the community.
In one way, the future is as uncertain in the breakaway churches as it is in the new worship communities.
A state court said that the breakaway churches could retain the name Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, and now the issue is which group owns the buildings once considered the property of The Episcopal Church where the breakaway congregations still worship.
Jeffords said his 350 members know that the ruling could go against them, and for the most part say they are ready to move out if the court rules their buildings to still belong to The Episcopal Church.
“Church is not a building,’’ he said. “We are willing to be frontier Christians if necessary.’’
At the same time, though, Ennis said members of St. Anne’s have told him they wouldn’t want to return to St. Paul’s buildings should they be returned to The Episcopal Church.
“There’s a strong sentiment that we’re not interested in that,’’ he said.
While there is hurt on both sides of the St. Paul’s-St. Anne’s split, members of the two have worked together, albeit tentatively at first, and Jeffords said that continued associations will make relationships more comfortable with time.
When the group that is now St. Anne’s was just starting, St. Paul’s let them meet in one of its chapels to organize their new community. On Good Friday this year, people from both congregations worked together for a Stations of the Cross service.
“We still love them,’’ Jeffords said of former members.
Stall said the break-up has been emotionally difficult for him.
“There are wonderful people on all sides of what is going on,” he said, likening the pain to that of a death in the family, a child going off to school or a move to a new location.
“I just hope everybody can stay open to listening to one another,” he said.