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MONTGOMERY: Church of the Ascension Parishioners To Start New Anglican Parish

Church of the Ascension Parishioners To Start New Anglican Parish

Parishioners Recruit Rector, Most of the Staff, 80 Percent of the Vestry

MONTGOMERY, Ala., April 10, 2005 -- For approximately 35 years the Episcopal Church of the United States of America, ECUSA, has struggled with the truth of the Scriptures of the Bible as they relate to human sexuality and the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth as Lord and Savior. Debates and repercussions of those struggles have ricocheted throughout the United States and around the world until the Episcopal Church has pushed it and its parent, the international Anglican Communion, to the teetering brink of schism--a formal and willful separation from the unity of the Church.

This morning, those struggles struck at the heart of the third largest Episcopal Church in the Alabama Diocese -- the 1,600-member Church of the Ascension in Montgomery's historic Garden District. After the 10:15 service, a thus-far uncounted, but large number of parishioners walked away from the Episcopal Church to form a new parish in the Anglican Communion's soon-to-be launched North American Province.

The new parish will be called "Christchurch", and will hold its first service next Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1728 South Hull Street in Montgomery. A permanent location is being sought.

The group has recruited the bulk of the Ascension staff and vestry. Turning in their resignations to Ascension this week are two of the three priests, including the rector -- The Reverend John-Michael van Dyke, and the associate rector for discipleship, The Rev. Robert L. DeMoss II. Others making the move are: Jeanne Dean, director of parish ministries; Madeliene Wilder, director of the children's ministry; Mara Holden, assistant director of children's ministries; D.J. Holden, youth minister; and, at the latest count, 11 of the 15 vestry members.

Christchurch will be under the jurisdiction of an international Anglican archbishop, at the direction of an American bishop and will be a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Many speculate that ECUSA will not be a part of the Communion in a few short years.

Ascension is not the first Episcopal Church in Alabama to split over the controversy. The oldest Episcopal Church in the state, Christ Church in Mobile, though not a part of the same diocese, split in 2000. Earlier this year parishioners at Christ the Redeemer, another Montgomery Episcopal Church, also left to form Legacy Anglican Church.

"We will embrace the same sacraments and traditions," said Mark Wilkerson, a prior senior warden of the Ascension and member of the Christchurch executive committee. "We will uphold the recognized authority of scripture and Anglican orthodoxy which has been the basis of our common life for over 450 years. Unlike the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Alabama, we will be full participants in the Anglican Communion and in full communion with the vast majority of worldwide Anglicans."

"Our worship service will not change," Wilkerson said. "We will use the same Prayer Book, sing the same hymns and songs and celebrate the Eucharist every Sunday. We'll have the same youth and children's ministries, puppet teams and Sunday School, Bible Studies and Women's Enrichment classes, and a new version of the Ascensionaires, the senior citizens group.

It is expected that Diocesan officials will work with remaining members of the congregation and staff to ensure continuity of ministry and pastoral care at the Church of the Ascension.

"We leave in a spirit of compassion, respect and concern -- and gratitude for what we have shared together," said former vestry member Dan Morris. "We hope to foster an atmosphere of love and friendship between those who stay and those who feel called to leave. As Fr. van Dyke said in his remarks: 'May the Lord watch between us while we are absent one from the other."

The international church crisis that found it's way to Church of the Ascension today reached a tipping point in 2003 when, at General Convention, leaders of the ECUSA defeated a resolution affirming the authority of Scripture; voted to confirm a non-celibate homosexual as bishop; and approved a resolution recognizing the blessing of same-sex unions as "within the bounds of common life." They did so in what some called blatant disregard for what the parent church advised. Leaders of the international body, at a resultant and unprecedented special meeting the following October, issued a pastoral statement condemning ECUSA's decisions. They have called for ECUSA to repent of its actions. ECUSA has refused.

"I am truly sorry to be leaving the parish I have loved," said Rev. van Dyke, who has served at Ascension for almost 15 years. "But I must go with the Christians who are committed to keeping the faith. This isn't about civil rights at all, it's about keeping Christianity from being so distorted that it's unrecognizable. The reality is, we haven't left the faith, the Episcopal Church is abandoning it. But in order to keep alive what has been handed down to us, we have to leave. It's as simple as that."

Van Dyke is not alone in his assessment. The handwriting, many Alabama Episcopalians are saying, is on the wall.

This past Friday, Archbishop Peter J. Akinola, whom some describe as the strongest and most respected leader among the Anglican leadership, called ECUSA disingenuous and duplicitous in its actions and said that the international church leaders "do not expect ECUSA and the Canadian church to participate in ANY of the structures of the Communion until they have chosen to respect the mind of the Communion. . . .The sad truth is that they have walked away from the Communion."

In regard to the recent meeting of the ECUSA House of Bishops, Akinola said: "I was disappointed that the only regret offered was for their failure to consult and the effect of their actions instead of an admission that what they have done has offended God and his Church. . . .The underlying reality of our communion in God the Holy Trinity is obscured, and the effectiveness of our common mission severely hindered.' ECUSA has yet to grasp this reality and still appears to be chasing shadows. Until this is recognized there can be no hope of meaningful reconciliation."

At its meeting, the House of Bishops called for a moratorium with regard to the ordinations of non-celibate homosexuals with a pledge to withhold consent to the consecration of any bishop until 2006.

"I find this response to be disingenuous since it holds the entire church to ransom for the sin of a few," Akinola said. "While they have claimed to answer the call for moratorium on the blessing of same-sex unions we know that there are Dioceses where the clergy are still continuing the practice of blessing same-sex partnerships with the Bishops' explicit permission. I find this duplicitous and I would point out that the underlying issue is not a temporary cessation of these practices but a decision to renounce them and demonstrate a willing embrace of the same teaching on matters of sexual morality as is generally accepted throughout the Communion..."

According to the London Times, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and administrative head of the Anglican Communion, told reporters in a February 25 press conference: "Any lasting solution will require people to say, somewhere along the line, that they were wrong." The February 26 issue of The Guardian newspaper said: "It was clear...that Frank Griswold, the liberal presiding bishop of the U.S. church, was not about to take up Dr Williams' suggestion and declare his church had been wrong. He told the Guardian: 'I can't imagine a conversation saying we got it wrong.'"

Fading Hope for Alabama Diocese

Those leaving the Ascension say it is clear to to them that the Diocese of Alabama will not be a forceful advocate for repentance and reform within ECUSA. They point to February's Diocesan Convention, where delegates rejected language in a resolution that would have called ECUSA to repent of its rejection of biblical standards in the area of marriage and sexuality.

At the same meeting, the Alabama Diocese defeated a resolution restricting giving to the National Church.

The Final Straw

"The threat of further punitive action has made it increasingly difficult for clergy to proclaim the Gospel without provoking disciplinary charges and other punitive action," George Madre, one of those who resigned from the Ascension vestry to help form the new Christchurch. "We currently are constrained by our Bishop in what adult education we can offer on Sunday mornings."

For many that was the final straw. A post card went to Ascension parishioners two weeks ago announcing a new study class: "Much has happened these past few months, with regard to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion," it read. "Before everyone breaks for the summer, we will offer a month long adult class in Ascension Hall, led by John-Michael van Dyke, beginning this Sunday, April 3: 'Where do we go from here?' We ask that everyone be present to keep abreast of these development and implications for our future."

When Diocesan Bishop Henry Nutt Parsley Jr., learned of the class, he relayed a message through a third party to van Dyke the day before the class was meet insisting that the series on the state of the church not be held. Van Dyke, constrained by his ordination vows to obey his bishop, complied.

But the standing-room only crowd that showed up to hear what their rector had to say was not amused by the bishop's action. For many, it was the last straw in a year darkened with bishop's warnings, pastoral letters and intense pressure on the orthodox parish.

The Property

Those leaving Ascension will not fight for the property. "Fighting over the property," Morris said, "would cause division with our brothers and sisters at the Ascension, and we do not wish that."

They leave much behind.

The stone church with tall, intricately-designed, stained glass windows, elaborate wood carvings, and stone floors was designed by famed Gothic architect Ralph Adams Cram of Boston. It's four floors cover much of a city block. Joshua House, a two-story youth facility, was completed a few years ago at a cost of approximately $1.5 million. Across the street is the church's Boy Scout House -- Ascension's Scout Troup Number 1, was the first to form in the Capitol City. The church owns another property in the same block.

The church offered approximately 30 ministries from prison outreach to support of missions in Uganda and Honduras, to a prayer-quilt ministry and a national award winning puppet team. It's "Success by Six" program offers a schooling boost to inner city youngsters. It's donations help support many charities in Central Alabama. Many of the people supporting those activities left today.

Under the governing rules of ECUSA, the church and all properties belong to the diocese and national church. While it is a valuable property, it is also expensive to maintain. The electric bill alone averages about $9,000 a month.

But those leaving say they take something more important with them. "The building is not the Church," Morris said. "God's church is in the hearts of His people. We'll begin again."

One parishioner said, he views ECUSA much as a wayward but much-loved child. "When the prodigal son asked for his inheritance and went into foreign lands and squandered that money on sinful things, the father did not follow him there. Nor did he stop loving him. He stayed home, waited and prayed for his son to see the error of his ways and return. When he did, he greeted him with love and affection. We cannot follow ECUSA down its current path -- but we wait for them at home in the Anglican Communion -- and we hope and pray for their return to their Father's truths."


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