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GAINSVILLE, FL: An Episcopal Parish Dies, an ACNA Parish is Born and Thrives

GAINSVILLE, FL: An Episcopal Parish Dies, an ACNA Parish is Born and Thrives

By David W. Virtue, DD
December 26, 2016

It was inevitable of course, but no one wanted to admit or concede that its day was done and the parish would have to close. But close it did, and the dwindling congregation at St. Michael's Episcopal Church in Gainsville, threw in the towel and called it quits, handing their keys over to the Episcopal Diocese of Florida and its bishop, Samuel Johnson Howard.

VOL first covered this story in 2006 when the parish split from the Episcopal Church over the confirmation of V. Gene Robinson as the first publicly proclaimed homosexual ordained to the episcopacy in TEC and it was downhill from there.

At that time, we reported that the Rev. Alex Farmer had resigned as rector of St. Michael's and he and his members would begin a new ministry, Servants of Christ Anglican Church, that would meet at a Vineyard Christian Fellowship, down the road, at 5 p.m. Sunday.

St. Michael's was one of the six congregations (out of 77) in the diocese that petitioned Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard, to find a new bishop to oversee them. At stake was the faith and the parish's disagreement with the Episcopal Church's ordination of an openly partnered homosexual bishop in New Hampshire. The bishop refused their request.

Later in 2010, it was thought St. Michael's Episcopal would be torn down to build a Walgreen's. But St. Michael's Episcopal Church was designed in the seventies by Nils M. Schweizer, a student of the famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, and apparently survived the chopping block.

From thence forward the parish went into decline. In 2005, there were 175 baptized Episcopalians with an ASA of 135 and a plate and pledge of $180,000. After the split in 2006, the baptized plunged to 28 with an ASA of 22 and a plate of pledge of $30,000. The church never recovered.

"I feel the Episcopal Church USA has left the Anglican tradition," Farmer said at the time. He and most of the congregation left and joined with the Anglican Church in North America.

And thrive it has. "We seek to live out a core purpose to make disciples, learning to do all that Jesus said and did," says its rector, the Rev. Alex Farmer, who trained at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. "If you choose to visit one of our services, you will find a multi-generational community of 200 adults and children," he writes. The parish is thriving.

"We wholeheartedly embrace what it means to live in a university city where there are many competing values systems and spiritual beliefs. By the grace of God, we call people to life in Jesus Christ and then lovingly walk with them in life-long transformation." Their community values include Scripture as the foundation of everything they say to each other and the World. Their common life and worship are shaped and nurtured by the riches of their Anglican Heritage.

Farmer writes, "We are willing to be uncomfortable for the sake of those outside our Church."

Who in the Episcopal Church could honestly say any of these things. The church has a clear fix on the gospel of Jesus Christ and they will not allow themselves to buy into pansexuality or post-modern views of the world. They are Christ's own and they belong to Christ.

For the stayers, it has been a different story. Church members had planned to have a final service Saturday before closing the doors, but they began to feel that staying open any longer was just prolonging the sadness.

St. Michael's Episcopal School, which is licensed for 67 prekindergarten pupils, will finish the school year at its Northwest 43rd Street location, then move to St. Joseph's Episcopal Church, 16921 Newberry Road, before next school year.

St. Michael's land, at 4315 NW 43rd St., has long been coveted by developers, but nearby residents hoped to keep the church and school as neighbors.

Diocesan officials say the decision to close the church came as a surprise to them. So where was Bishop Howard? Local press covering the story say he could not be reached for comment. Which begs the question what sort of spin would he have given to yet another dying parish!

At the end of the day, the property is worth more to the bishop than a small handful of offerings from aging parishioners. He can now sell it to developers for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a no brainer for him.

The really sad truth is that the theological and moral divisions and innovations that have torn The Episcopal Church apart just took down another parish and this will not be the end. When you have no clear gospel-driven mission about what the church should be about except for a handful of social concerns better handled by secular agencies, then you have no basis for your own existence.

Yelling about the Jesus Movement and hitching it to racism and white privilege will not make churches grow.

One departing parishioner, Phillip Camp, a longtime St. Michael's vestry member said, "The problem really, with splits, is that you wind up with small churches who don't have a lot more resources than what's needed just to keep the show on the road. It means your outreach is hampered by the fact that keeping the lights on and keeping people paid have to come first."

"Splits happen," he said, "but I've been in them and don't recommend them."

Some church members felt the diocese never gave the church the support it needed. One priest was doing well, and weekly attendance was up to 200 or more, until his wife became ill. Another left because of internal church politics that vestry members didn't even know about. For a time, the church had a priest who split time with the Chapel of the Incarnation near the University of Florida campus.

"The congregation never got big enough to support a full-time director," Camp said. "And every time someone left, attendance would fall off."

Musical instruments and other artifacts donated to the church were put up for sale on eBay and other vendor sites, with no opportunity for donors to say if they'd like to have the objects back.

"That bothered me greatly," she said. "I just feel that's wrong. The piano donor, he was not consulted with, but asked, 'Are you interested in buying it?' "

None of this would have happened had the Episcopal Church not gone down the slippery moral slope it embarked on 30 years ago. The Episcopal Church is reaping what it has sown and St. Michael's is but another example of that slow but inevitable death.


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