General Convention’s actions became the final tipping point

By Mary Ann Mueller and David W. Virtue

Citing recent General Convention’s actions endorsing rites for same-sex marriage as the tipping point, the parish of St. John’s Episcopal Church, its rector and vestry, announced this week that they are leaving the Episcopal Church and turning the church’s keys over to the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia. The Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has accepted The Rev. William McQueen, III, into its fold.

St. John’s is leaving a vacant Episcopal Church building behind as well as prayer books, hymnals, vestments, chalices, candles and furnishings. There will be no litigation.

On Sunday (Aug. 5) a new ACNA church plant – St. Mark’s Anglican Church – will open at Trinity Chapel located at Trinity Baptist Church a few blocks away from their former Episcopal parish. St. Mark’s will officially join ACNA’s Anglican Diocese of the South under its bishop, Foley Beach, remain a member of Forward in Faith and keep its ties to the American Anglican Council.

Fr. McQueen said that Trinity Baptist Church was graciously sharing its extra worship space with the newly formed Anglican congregation. He is pleased with their cooperation in the continuation of the historic Catholic faith being authentically lived out in a traditional Anglican expression. The smaller attached chapel is not used on Sunday mornings, affording an opportunity for the new Anglican congregation to have a traditional setting for its initial liturgical celebrations.

The former Episcopal priest graduated from Sewanee, University of the South. On Sunday, he’ll use the vestments and Eucharistic vessels he received as graduation gifts. Many of his parishioners will bring their own copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to Trinity Chapel. A “rush order” for 1940 Hymnals has been placed. It is hoped they will be delivered in time for Sunday’s first service as Georgia’s newest ACNA church plant.

Trinity Baptist and St. John’s Episcopal churches have had a two-decade-long musical connection because both congregations share the same organist. Ken Collier has faithfully played at the two churches for years navigating between parishes that have staggered their worship service times to accommodate their joint organist’s tight travel times. Earlier this year, the Trinity congregation was invited to St. John’s for an old-fashioned Anglican-style hymn sing.

Fr. McQueen and Trinity’s pastor, the Rev. Matt Marston, have become friends. Both clerics arrived in Moultrie about the same time. As the newest clergy in town they crossed paths, not only through the ministerial alliance, but also by becoming members of the same Rotary Club. Having forged a fast friendship, Fr. McQueen was able to reach out to the Baptist clergyman as the need to distance his congregation from The Episcopal Church ultimately became apparent in the wake of last month’s General Convention’s actions.

St. John’s, which has been a part of the Moultrie landscape for 100 years, was once a strong thriving Episcopal congregation in Colquitt County. But as The Episcopal Church drifted further from authentic Christianity and historic Anglicanism, the Moultrie congregation fell on spiritually hard times. St. John’s membership, in a conservative South Georgia Bible Belt community, dropped with an ASA hovering around 100. At the turn of the Millennium, it fell to just over 20 by 2005.

One hundred years ago, in 1912, St. John’s was a church plant of St. Matthew’s in nearby Fitzgerald. The new Episcopal congregation started its spiritual life by sharing the worship space at the local Presbyterian Church. 100 years later, St. John’s joyfully launched a yearlong celebration of its centennial.

Then came the 2012 General Convention. Now the 100-year-old congregation of Episcopalians has obtained sanctuary with the Baptists as they forge forward, molding a new Anglican identity with renewed hope for authentically living out historic Anglicanism and remaining faithful to the Gospel.

It was from that very centennial celebration that St. Mark’s name was first considered as a possible ACNA church plant. St. Mark is widely acknowledged to be the first Gospel written. Mark the Evangelist is usually depicted, in iconography, as a winged lion.

St. John’s gala Centennial homecoming celebration was in late April. The Feast of St. Mark fell just a few days before on April 25.

“The choice of St. Mark came after much prayer and asking God for a name and an identity,” Fr. McQueen remembers. “As we were planning our centennial homecoming service on April 29, the Feast of St. Mark preceded that service and the Propers and collect for that day were in my mind when I made my remarks to the congregation.”

The Moultrie priest explained that his bishop, Scott Benhase, voted against A049, allowing Episcopal blessings of same-gender relationships. The bishop is still “discerning” what tack he will take in the Diocese of Georgia. So, A049 could still very easily become a part of The Episcopal Church’s spiritual framework in southern Georgia.

Fr. McQueen came to St. John’s in 2009. The Episcopal Church is deeply embedded in his DNA; he was baptized, confirmed, married and ordained as an Episcopalian. Theologically, things got to a point where, like so many others before him, he had to leave the church with which he most identified.

Since coming to Moultrie, he has been slowly rebuilding the struggling congregation. Little by little, St. John’s was coming back. The priest reported that his ASA of more than 40 was 75% of his membership totals. In fact, there are worshippers who attend St. John’s who are not yet on the rolls.

St. John parishioners felt they had no other choice but to walk out of their church, shake the dust off their feet, and leave everything behind because of recent court decisions that the Georgia judicial system believes The Episcopal Church’s claim that it is hierarchical in structure. As a result, the courts summarily handover church property to the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia; a case in point being the recent handing of Christ Church Savannah’s property to the Georgia diocese.

“There was a very definitive case in Georgia which restated the law that has always been, concerning hierarchical churches, is that the property belongs to the Diocese,” explained Senior Warden Rodney Allen, who is an attorney. “The Supreme Court of Georgia just gave the old Mother Church of Georgia – which was founded in 1733 and was 100 years older than the Diocese – they just gave their property to the Diocese, and so it is clear cut here, we just walked out.”

The Senior Warden said that walking out and leaving all behind was freeing.

By walking out and leaving all behind, the budding Anglican congregation would not be saddled with on-going litigation by The Episcopal Church in its scorched-earth attempts to recover all properties of departing congregations and dioceses.

“Well, the priest resigned, the vestry resigned and the people got up and walked out,” Allen explained. “We are free of the taint of The Episcopal Church. It’s freeing to be rid of the love of the building and all that goes with that. But, finally, the faith became so corrupted that we had to leave.”

“It’s freeing, it’s freeing, it’s freeing …” Fr. McQueen echoed.

Once the extent of the theological carnage inflicted at General Convention was known, several behind the scenes meetings were held with ACNA, Trinity Baptist Church, and the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, to insure that St. John parishioners left with their dignity intact and their heads held high. Everything was completed with an air of respect.

The Diocese of Georgia has since turned over St. John’s keys to Fr. Walter Hobgood, the Priest-in-Charge at St. Margaret’s of Scotland Episcopal Church, also located in Moultrie.

Fr. Hobgood told VOL that, for the time being, all services at St. John’s are suspended, the church’s red doors will remain closed, and that any members wanting to remain in The Episcopal Church should attend St. Margaret’s.

As the new vicar of St. John’s, he will be reassessing the situation and juggling his schedule to accommodate St. John’s needs, as they become known. He said that he could eventually see St. John’s and St. Margret’s becoming a yoked congregation served by one priest.

“St. John’s regularly scheduled services conflict with the services at St. Margret’s and I can’t be at two places at once,” Fr. Hobgood noted. “So, we’re inviting everyone who wants to stay in The Episcopal Church to come to St. Margaret’s on Sunday.”

Meanwhile, the revamped St. John’s congregation in Moultrie will be re-establishing Sunday as St. Mark’s in the Trinity Chapel, with the final legalities being worked out as the new ACNA congregation unfolds.

“…for 100 years St. John’s Episcopal had been a church proclaiming the historic Christian faith, not being carried away by every blast of vain doctrine,” Fr. McQueen stated. “That’s who we are and will continue to be.”

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