A spiritual house divided

Split: Members of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church upset by the installation of an openly gay bishop form a new congregation.

November 10, 2003|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

After nearly 27 years as a parishioner, Bill Meisheid left St. Timothy's Episcopal Church yesterday.

Before Communion, he stood up in the Catonsville church and asked Maryland's Suffragan Bishop John L. Rabb, who was visiting, if he rejected the recent consecration of a gay man to serve as a bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Rabb said he did not and soon afterward, Meisheid walked out. Then he drove a couple of miles to worship at a gymnasium with dozens of former St. Timothy's members who had left the parish and the Episcopal Church in protest earlier this fall.

"There is no chance for dialogue on this issue," said Meisheid, 56, a technical writer from Oella, during coffee hour after the service in the gym. "It's black and white; it's right and wrong."

Meisheid's journey yesterday provides a glimpse of what a divided parish can look like in the Episcopal Church, which faces one of its toughest challenges in years. This month, the church consecrated Bishop V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, to lead the diocese of New Hampshire.

The move has infuriated tradition-minded Episcopalians, who say that Scripture clearly opposes homosexual behavior. Some Episcopalians have vowed to leave the church, setting the stage for what could be a costly legal battle over church property.

St. Timothy's is one of the most conservative churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and is the only one to split over the issue of Robinson's ordination. Members such as Meisheid have left to form a new parish -- Emmaus Anglican Church -- with their former rector, the Rev. Steven R. Randall. They have made no claims to St. Timothy's property and meet each Sunday in the gymnasium of nearby Bishop Cummins Memorial Reformed Episcopal Church.

More than 160 people attended the 10 a.m. service yesterday at Emmaus, some of them Episcopalians from other parishes angered by Robinson's consecration. Sitting on folding chairs beneath a pair of Plexiglas backboards, parishioners read from Bibles they had brought from home and sang hymns projected on a screen in front.

"Everything we have is borrowed," said Randall, who resigned from St. Timothy's a couple of months ago after giving a sermon in which he compared the Episcopal bishops who supported Robinson to the hijackers of 9/11. "We left with nothing, just a few old hymnals."

Perhaps 70 people attended St. Timothy's 9 a.m. service yesterday, a considerable drop from average attendance earlier this year.

A vestryman politely requested that a reporter not interview parishioners and leave the property. He said the congregation had suffered through a difficult split, and members didn't want to talk.

Rabb said his visit was unrelated to the dispute over Robinson and had been scheduled long ago. He said the parish is trying to rebound.

"There is a lot of commitment and energy in that congregation," said Rabb in a phone interview afterward. "They've been through pain, but they are not dissuaded and they aren't giving in."

The Rev. Arthur E. Wooley Jr. is leading St. Timothy's as interim rector. Rabb said the parish would issue a mission statement soon charting its future.

In some ways, Emmaus is already moving ahead. Yesterday, Randall announced that the fledgling parish would join the Anglican Mission in America, a missionary organization that was established in 2000 and has 50 churches.

The Episcopal Church represents the U.S. branch of the 75 million-member Anglican Communion. The Anglican Mission works to create new U.S. churches separate from the Episcopal Church, but loyal to Anglican archbishops in the developing world.

The Anglican Mission is an outgrowth of a theological division between the Global North -- the United States, Canada and Western Europe -- and the Global South -- parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America -- which tend to be more traditional and conservative on issues of scriptural interpretation and homosexuality.

Yesterday, one of the Anglican Mission's U.S.-based bishops, the Rt. Rev. Thaddeus Barnum, spoke to Emmaus parishioners about the importance of sticking to their principles when other dissident parishes have declined to break with the Episcopal Church for fear of losing their property.

"Our children are watching and wondering: `Does anyone stand for the truth today?'" Barnum preached. "My children need to see leaders who will lead to the path of righteousness."

Several former St. Timothy's parishioners said they were sorry to leave their church behind, but said that their faith was more important than real estate.

"We are the church," said Nancy Brown, 65, a Woodlawn resident who had been a member of St. Timothy's since 1978. "You can worship the Lord anywhere."

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