Congregations' split is like painful divorce

MELBOURNE, FLA. — MELBOURNE, Fla. - When Pat Vander Poest says goodbye to St. John's Episcopal Church, the toughest part will be leaving her daughter, Julie, who died in a car crash two decades ago and whose ashes lie in the shade of a moss-draped oak in the parish's memorial garden.

"I would prefer to stay," said Vander Poest, 69, a retired junior high school teacher. "But it's not about me, it's about God."


To stay true to her faith, Vander Poest says, she must give up her daughter's grave just as Abraham agreed to follow God's orders to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

Vander Poest and several hundred members of St. John's congregation are scheduled to vote tomorrow on whether to leave the Episcopal Church over the November consecration of an openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. By all accounts, most parishioners plan to go.


If they do, they will probably have to leave behind their spiritual home, a white wooden church with a pine-paneled interior that dates to 1897 and overlooks a marina here, about an hour's drive east of Orlando.

Under canon law, the Episcopal Church's real estate, worth billions, is held in trust for each local diocese and, ultimately, the national church.

Real estate is a pivotal issue in the battle over homosexuality raging between biblically orthodox Episcopalians and much of the rest of the 2.3 million-member denomination.

Robinson's consecration has created a dilemma for tradition-minded congregations such as St. John's and scores of others around the country.

Simply put, they must choose between their strict reading of scripture - which forbids homosexuality - and the emotional and financial pain of leaving churches where many have spent the most important moments of their spiritual lives.

"A lot of people are having trouble breaking their psychological connection to the property," said the Rev. John Miller, who is resigning as St. John's pastor and urging parishioners to join him in starting a new church.

Although many parishes are angry over Robinson's consecration, splits like this one are not typical. Jan Nunley, deputy director of the Episcopal News Service, the church's official news agency, said she knows of perhaps a dozen parishes where a significant portion of the membership has left over Robinson's consecration.

They include St. Timothy's Episcopal Church in Catonsville, where the Rev. Steven R. Randall resigned in September and took some of the congregation with him. Randall did not lay claim to the property.


In fact, real estate is a major force binding dissident parishes to the national church. Charles Nalls, executive director of the Canon Law Institute in Washington, D.C., which advises conservative parishes, said that in the past 10 months he has received more than 200 inquiries about whether congregations could leave the national church with their property.

Nalls has not been encouraging. Under the church's 1979 Dennis Canon, parish property is essentially owned by the diocese and the national church. He said most congregations stand, at best, a one-in-three chance of winning a court case over real estate - with legal fees starting at about $500,000.

"I know a lot people in Virginia alone who would walk instantly but for the building," says Nalls, who has been involved in nearly a dozen Episcopal church property cases.

Last week, 100 bishops representing 12 dioceses and about 10 percent of the church's national membership established an organization of biblically orthodox Episcopalians called the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes.

Leaders said they aren't splitting from the national church, but are instead creating a haven for traditionalists within its framework.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which emerged from the Church of England and now has 75 million members. Many Network members hope the Communion will eventually recognize them as the true Episcopal Church here. They're moving cautiously, though, warning parishes not to make a complete break for fear of sparking lawsuits.


Members at parishes such as St. John's are disappointed that the network has not parted ways with the national church and taken what they consider a more principled stand against its liberal drift.

"We've gotten tired of waiting, and it seems to us that things continue to go downhill," said Miller. "It could be years before we could have a settlement and get our property and do what we want."

The Episcopal Church's decision to approve Robinson as New Hampshire's bishop has sent other financial ripples through the country as angry conservative donors withhold funds.

An hour's drive south of Melbourne in Vero Beach, the Rev. Lorne Coyle is struggling to fund a $10 million expansion of Trinity Church, the second largest in the Diocese of Central Florida.

After the national church approved Robinson as bishop, one of Coyle's donors canceled most of a $300,000 construction pledge.

"I've never been so out of control," said Coyle. His parish, he said, is running a deficit for the first time, in part because of former donors angry with the national church.


At St. John's, Miller had to abandon plans to build a new church. Robinson's consecration, he said, "kind of destroyed my capital campaign."

Last week, Miller told his congregation that he was leaving the Episcopal Church to join the Anglican Mission in America, which was established in 2000 and has 60 churches. The Anglican Mission is overseen by several Anglican archbishops in the developing world, but it is not recognized by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and effective leader of the Anglican Communion.

Miller said that if a large percentage of parishioners join him, he hopes the Diocese of Central Florida will offer to sell them the church. Its bishop, the Rt. Rev. John Howe, is among the 100 bishops who joined the church's dissident network. But even though he shares St. John's opposition to Robinson's consecration, he said he is not free to offer the property.

Any decision to sell would also require approval by the diocesan board and standing committee, he said. Even then, under church law the diocese would have to seek the best price in open bidding.

"If we start giving away properties at a dollar an acre, the national church would say, 'Wait a minute, there is a breach of fiduciary responsibility,'" Howe said.

While many parishioners are willing to walk away from St. John's, some find the prospect too painful.


Robert Stitzel has spent more than four decades in the parish, where his three sons, Robert Jr., Michael and Dennis were baptized, confirmed and married. He was the only member of the 12-person vestry to vote against leaving.

Stitzel, a 68-year-old developer, donated his time and money to build the parish offices, expand the parish hall, create a youth building and construct a new parking lot. "That's my ministry," he said.

He said the church has become a refuge for his family, especially as they struggle with the health of Michael, a quadriplegic. It's easier for someone like Miller to leave, he said, because the pastor has served there only seven years.

"We've been there so long, it's become a very special place of comfort," said Stitzel, relaxing one evening in a T-shirt at home. "We say this with all the love and care, [but] he doesn't have the length of time to have the relationship with the buildings."

Many members of St. John's view the Bible as the word of God and not something to be endlessly interpreted in light of the times. Some, though, read the Bible differently, particularly the passages banning homosexual conduct.

Among them is Hasty Miller, 65, a retired design engineer not related to the pastor. Miller's daughter, Laurie, is a lesbian. He says she fought her attraction to females during her teen-age years but eventually quit.


Miller believes that one day scientists will prove that homosexuality is not a lifestyle choice, but an innate drive or a function of the environment. When that happens, he said, congregations that break away over the issue of homosexuality will become isolated and unsustainable.

"They are founding the church on something that will be proven incorrect," Miller says of the those who plan to go. Still, he worries that a mass defection might leave the remaining members unable to fund the parish he joined 23 years ago.

"It makes me feel sad," he said, "because I doubt that St. John's is going to survive."

For the record

An article on an Episcopal Church breakup in yesterday's editions of The Sun incorrectly stated the number of bishops who have established an alternative network within the Episcopal Church. The correct number is 10.The Sun regrets the error.