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St. George's Spesutia, Maryland's oldest Episcopal parish, to end worship services

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St. George's Spesutia Parish in Perryman, the oldest Episcopal parish in Maryland, will suspend holding worship services effective at the end of the year, the Bishop of Maryland has informed parishioners.

In a letter dated Nov. 1, the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, explained the decision to members of the parish, which has been in continuous operation since 1671.

Sutton's letter, a copy of which was provided to The Aegis by a parishioner, cited a lack of attendance at Sunday worship services, a lack of income from the collection plate and pledges "to sustain a parish financially with your buildings and grounds, let alone to sustain a thriving ministry" and the likelihood that the parish's investments would be depleted within four years if the financial situation continued.

"You have also been inflicted with a history and pattern of conflicts within the parish, and between the parish and the diocese," the Bishop wrote.

Two members of the parish interviewed Thursday said the parish has always paid its bills and that the "conflicts" referred to in the letter largely involved a single member with whom Sutton has an acknowledged hostile relationship.

Victoria Davis, a parish member, as is her husband, Griffith Davis, said the regular church attendance has dwindled to 25 to 30 members; however, the parish has been able to sustain its activities in part by relying on retired and other ministers who don't have a regular parish assignment to preach the Sunday services. The couple lives on a farm just south of Havre de Grace.

"Last January the Bishop showed up and told the vestry the diocese could not help us out," Victoria Davis said. "We spent the last year trying to get new members and raising money with bake sales and teas, but we haven't succeeded" in satisfying Sutton's concerns.

"With our regular attendance so low, we can't afford a full-time minister and that irritates the Bishop," she continued. A full-time minister would cost the parish $60,000 to $70,000 a year, she said. Using rotating ministers from what is called a "supply list" runs the parish about $10,000.

Davis also said other parishes in Harford, which has 10 according to church officials, have similar problems, but St. George's has clearly been on the Bishop's radar.

"They say we have too few people, too little income and too many arguments among ourselves and with the diocese, but we've never asked them for money and we've always paid our bills," she added.

The diocese is not closing the church or its adjoining historic cemetery, Sharon Tillman, director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, explained. The diocese serves about 22,000 Episcopalians though 112 parishes in 10 counties, she said.

"We are suspending worship services," Tillman said, noting that the decision was not reached hastily, but was arrived at through a lengthy process of review.

According to the diocese's official statement about the closing, "there are currently less than two dozen on an average Sunday and they have been without a full-time priest for over two decades. Currently, the income from pledges is not enough to sustain their ongoing expenses without further eroding the principle of their investments."

"It is disappointing that our oldest parish is in this situation. But it is simply not good stewardship to maintain this congregation in its current state, especially given its isolated location," said Rev. Scott Slater, a representative of the diocese, in the statement.

"The bishop has asked the Episcopal clergy from the surrounding congregations to strategize over the next few years as to the best use of the property, which contains three buildings and a large cemetery," the statement continued. "A food bank will continue to operate out of one of the buildings, and the church and cemetery will remain available to current members for burials."

Tillman, the communications director, said the property, which according to one of the historic monuments on the property was acquired in exchange for "2,500 pounds of good tobacco," will be under the care of a vicar, who serves as a direct representative of the diocese. She reiterated that a food bank which serves southern Harford County will remain on the property.

The site contains a number of historic structures, the oldest of which is the vestry house, built in 1766, a decade before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The original church building burned down, and there were two successor churches built in the 1700s prior to construction of the current building in 1851, according to "An Architectural History of Harford County," by the late Christopher Weeks, considered the definitive work on the county's historic buildings.

"St. George's…is among the most venerable institutions in America," Weeks wrote in the book, published in 1996.

Griffith Davis, who reckons there are two centuries of Davis family members buried in the St. George's cemetery, refuted many of the diocese's and the Bishop's claims, saying the supposed "conflicts" involved a single member whom the other members had asked be banned from the church. Davis, who is the church treasurer, also said no money had been spent on capital improvements and that the overall finances are solvent.

"We don't want the church to close," he said. "It's a great parish, an important part of my own family. We simply don't want it to go."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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