Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, a small black Episcopal congregation in Sumter, is celebrating its 100th anniversary Sunday with a visit from the Right Rev. Charles G. vonRoseberg, bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
The white-frame church at Dingle and Wright streets also claims another distinction: Good Shepherd is one of two small congregations in Sumter that have opted to remain with the national Episcopal Church.
The larger congregations in Sumter and the Pee Dee have chosen to follow Bishop Mark Lawrence, who announced last October he was breaking from the national church over theological differences, including the church’s increasingly liberal attitudes toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Lawrence continues to lead the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina in the Lowcountry, one of two Episcopal Dioceses in the state, and has won a legal battle to retain the name.
John Spann, Good Shepherd’s chief warden, said the small congregation had an “ongoing discussion” about the divisions within the diocese, which he said began with the election of the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC).
“There were a number of people in the diocese that were not pleased by the election of a female bishop,” Spann said earlier this week. The church’s decision to move toward blessings of same-sex unions was the final straw for Lawrence, who led his South Carolina delegation out of the Episcopal General Convention in July 2012.
Spann said his congregation discussed the issues and voted to stay with the national church, as did another small black congregation, St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Wedgefield, which turns 125 this year. Currently, there are 22 parishes and missions aligned with Bishop vonRosenberg that remain in their original buildings. An additional eight are called worshipping communities, that meet in alternative locations.
“There was actually a vote and the majority of the congregation decided they were not ready to let this one issue separate them from the national church,” Spann said.
Part of that decision stemmed from their experience as black Episcopalians, some of whom remembered the difficulties of integrating the larger church.
“When we look at it as black communicants we kind of know the feeling of being left out, that being other than part of the mainstream,” Spann said. “There is a sense that we would take a strong look at that before shunning or shutting them out. We hold the feeling that Christ is available to all persons and when he said ‘Come unto me,’ there is no asterisk that says you and you and you.”
Spann said he hopes both groups can put their conflicts aside and get down to the business of Christian mission. “This fight has been going on long enough. It’s time to put aside the fighting and fulfill the mission that both groups see in the world.”
That isn’t likely to happen with legal disagreements still pending between the two organizations over issues that include ownership of the lucrative Lowcountry church properties.