- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2000

The Rev. Quigg Lawrence Jr. is facing the greatest crisis of his career.

Three months ago, his Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit made headlines when his bishop suggested it no longer belonged to the denomination.

The 40-year-old pastor now awaits a letter from his bishop outlining his choices as an Episcopal priest. Mr. Lawrence guesses he will be told to either renounce his affiliation with the denomination or be "deposed," an Episcopal term that means to be defrocked.

"I thought we had a pretty decent relationship with the diocese despite the fact we're pretty polar in our theology," Mr. Lawrence says. "After all, this is Bible Belt Roanoke."

He and his 1,300-member congregation are in the odd position of having become rogue Episcopalians. The problem, it seems, is the church is too conservative.

"Was I inviting them to leave?" says Bishop Neff Powell of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Virginia. "I suppose so. But I was telling the truth the way I see it."

Two weeks ago, Bishop Powell sent out a letter to the clergy of his 60 parishes explaining his side of the story.

"The Diocese of Southwestern Virginia extended trust to Church of the Holy Spirit," he wrote. "It appears that Church of the Holy Spirit has not been able to return that trust."

At issue, he says, was Holy Spirit's refusal to pay its annual diocesan pledge, its un-Episcopal habit of calling committee chairmen "deacons" and its priest a "pastor" instead of the more liturgical term "rector," as well as its use of the word "evangelical" rather than "Episcopal" to describe the church.

"It's a matter of personal preference," says Mr. Lawrence, adding that Catholic churches also employ the term "pastor."

" 'Rector' comes from the word 'rex,' meaning 'he who rules,' " he says. "But Christ rules this church. I don't 'rector' people day in and day out. I pastor them."

Except for the altar and candles up front, Holy Spirit's sanctuary could easily double as one of the numerous Southern Baptist or nondenominational congregations in town. Instead of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, the pews are stocked with New International Version Bibles. Instead of an organist up front, the stage is occupied by a 13-member "praise band."

Mr. Lawrence's assistant, David Fuller, 37, is a Southern Baptist clergyman, the son of Charles Fuller, pastor of First Baptist Church of Roanoke. Although the diocese refused to grant him credentials within the Episcopal Church, Holy Spirit hired Mr. Fuller nevertheless.

Other than the pastor, no one on the staff at Holy Spirit is an Episcopalian and only three of the nine-member vestry, or governing board of the church, are. Most members are former Catholics or Southern Baptists.

Nevertheless, Mr. Lawrence insists, the parish wishes to remain Episcopal.

"I don't see a better way of worshipping than the Anglican faith," he says. "They know how to worship. They understand the power of the Holy Spirit. They don't hate the world."

The debate between the left-leaning diocesan bishop, who serves on the board of the local Planned Parenthood affiliate, and the right-leaning parish is a microcosm of the split threatening the future of the 2.4-million-member Episcopal Church. Since the late 1960s, the denomination has been rent over internal battles concerning the authority of Scripture, the ordination of female and homosexual clergy and solemnization of same-sex "marriages."

The situation has gotten so desperate, in the minds of conservative Episcopalians, that, two months ago in Singapore, six Episcopal/Anglican bishops and archbishops consecrated two American priests to be "missionary bishops" to an American church they felt has strayed terribly from its Christian calling.

The consecrations were condemned by the archbishop of Canterbury and the many of his fellow Anglican prelates, 38 of whom will meet in Portugal next week to discuss the matter but not at Holy Spirit, whose vestry, on March 2, voted to leave the Diocese of Southwest Virginia and become the first parish in the country to sign up under one of the two missionary bishops.

"They called me at home and read me a letter and said we're leaving," says Bishop Powell. "I asked them if they had future plans and they says they were exploring their options."

The next day, he heard from a newspaper reporter that Holy Spirit had decided to affiliate with the Episcopal Church of Rwanda under Bishop Chuck Murphy, one of the new "missionary bishops."

Holy Spirit has been the fastest-growing church in the diocese and, until recently, one of the diocese's three largest parishes. It openly opposed retired Bishop Heath Light, who once headed up a "Celebrate Diversity" campaign for a local pro-homosexual group.

"They asked me to renounce my support for this group," remembers Bishop Light. "One individual handed me a slip of paper with five or six expectations on it; to resign from that group and to publicly confess that error."

He declined, and the next time it came time for an annual visit to Church of the Holy Spirit, its vestry told him not to bother coming. Bishop Light turned the matter over to his successor, Bishop Powell.

The new bishop quickly realized that Church of the Holy Spirit was a popular sell in Roanoke, population 93,000, the largest city in a region of conservative churches and about an hour's drive from the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg. Until the congregation was founded in 1986, there was no local Episcopal church that appealed to the evangelical Christian mindset.

But, wary of the liberalizing tendencies of the Episcopal Church, which even then was moving toward solemnizing same-sex "marriages" and ordaining openly homosexual clergy, the founders elected to place the church under the ownership of a foundation. Thus, if the parish elected to leave the denomination, it would not face a lawsuit from the diocese over the ownership of its $2.6 million building on 15.8 acres.

"They were very candid about it," Bishop Light says. "They told us we're not sure how long we're in this game."

In 1989, the parish hired Mr. Lawrence, then 29, as its founding rector. Eleven years later, the bishop refuses to transfer Mr. Lawrence's credentials to Rwanda.

"If you're moving to Rwanda, I'd be glad to transfer you," Bishop Powell says. "But it undermines the integrity of Anglicanism for you to stay here in this city, but claim you're under the authority of the bishop of Rwanda."

The bishop also insists the priest turn the property title of the church over to the diocese, which the priest legally cannot do.

"You stuck a gun to our head," Mr. Lawrence says he would tell his bishop. "If we weren't given an ultimatum, we'd be in the Episcopal Church today."

Because of disagreements with the diocese, Holy Spirit had refused to give it more than $7,000, a fraction of its $1.5 million yearly budget. To ease matters, the priest donated 10 percent of his $70,000 salary instead.

But this was not sufficient for Bishop Powell, who sent an Oct. 12 letter to the parish.

"Why are you bothering to remain in the Episcopal Church?" the bishop wrote. "At some point, I think you need to decide if you are in or out… .

"For the sake of what you believe and for the sake of our spiritual lives, mine and yours, perhaps the mission of the whole church would be better served if we amicably separated. I would find that sad, but very understandable."

In a following letter, he gave the congregation until Palm Sunday, April 16, to meet eight requirements in order "to rejoin the Episcopal Church."

A furious vestry decided to suspend all further contributions to the diocese and to boycott the annual diocesan convention in early February. Church law requires congregations to send representatives to the council, as well as give to the diocese and national church.

The bishop says he does not plan to take the church to court, even though the diocese has sued twice in the past to retain the properties of departing churches.

"I'm trying to not have this be a war," he says. "We're trying to handle this as gracefully as we can."

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