- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

The small Episcopal congregation gathered for worship Sunday morning in a sunlit loft of a Presbyterian church across the street from the historic Falls Church, the Episcopal group’s former home.

The liturgy of the newly reconstituted Falls Church Episcopal, a tiny minority of congregants who voted to stay with the Episcopal Church, was punctuated by uplifting hymns, as the Rev. Michael Pipkin reminded the 50 or so worshippers that Lent, the 40-day season of penance and self-reflection before Easter, is a time to prepare for Jesus Christ’s return.

Lent is a period of spiritual discipline to strengthen one’s relationship with God, which Episcopal leaders say is necessary now as the American church faces one of the most difficult periods in its history.

“The world does not revolve around us and our sins,” said Mr. Pipkin, who has been providing temporary leadership for some 150 Episcopalians who want to remain with the Episcopal Church. “God knows them all, and yet God chooses to be with us.”

Meanwhile, services were held across the street at the Falls Church, where the majority of parishioners voted in December to leave the American denomination and affiliate with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a mission of the conservative Anglican Church of Nigeria.

Congregants voted 1,228 to 127 to leave the Episcopal Church over issues of biblical authority and sexuality, splitting one of the largest and most historic churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

The diocese and the denomination’s national headquarters in New York are suing the Falls Church and 10 other congregations in Virginia over millions of dollars of property.

The CANA congregation continues to occupy the Falls Church property and has said that its services and ministries are open to all persons — Anglican or not.

“It’s an open door for them to come to our services and ministries — it always has been, and it always will be,” said the Rev. Rick Wright, senior associate rector at the Falls Church (Anglican). “The idea that they’ve been excluded or locked out of the building — that’s just not true.”

While the Falls Church invites anyone to participate in services, the Anglican church does not offer services led by Episcopal priests, said Bill Fetsch, senior warden of the Falls Church Episcopal’s vestry, or governing board.

The new Falls Church Episcopal began as a discussion over breakfast among three parishioners who voted to stay with the Episcopal Church. The congregation held its first worship service with about 30 people at Mr. Fetsch’s home Jan. 14, and has met every Sunday since, he said.

Falls Church Presbyterian Church has offered its former neighbors worship and fellowship space.

James Jelasic, a professional musician who attended an Episcopal church in Alexandria, volunteered to lead a music ministry. The growing congregation also is recruiting more people to its 12-member choir and is planning weekly classes.

“We are forming a new family now,” Mr. Fetsch’s wife, Robin, said after Sunday’s service as she mingled with other Episcopalians over coffee and snacks in the Presbyterian church’s fellowship hall.

The congregation is much smaller, but its spirit remains.

“My sense is that nothing has changed,” said Jason Matechak, who attended the Falls Church for eight years. “These folks have voted to leave, and the only thing they haven’t done is leave the property.”

Mr. Matechak said he and his family at first continued to attend services at the Falls Church after the December vote, but decided it no longer met their needs. The family then visited St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Arlington before contacting the diocese about connecting with other Episcopalians from the Falls Church.

“I didn’t do anything wrong. Why did I have to find somewhere else to go?” he said.

The diocese put Mr. Matechak in touch with the Fetschs.

The past few months have been trying for Episcopalians and Anglicans, but leaders on both sides of the debate say recent events have strengthened their faith.

Last month, Anglican leaders issued an ultimatum for the 2.2 million-member American church: Ban the blessing of same-sex unions and the ordination of homosexual people by Sept. 30, or risk expulsion from the 77 million-member Anglican Communion.

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, the Episcopal Church’s top bishop, said Lent is a good time to receive the primates’ request.

“I fully recognize that this is a heavy time for most of us, but what better way to start Lent?” Bishop Jefferts Schori said to laughter during a speech at the Episcopal Church Center in New York last month. “I think it’s a time for us to slow down, to rest in God, which is the only place we can rest, and to realize that we’re not deciding today. And whatever we decide, God will continue to be God, and this church will continue to be engaged in mission, and most of those relationships we have with places across the world are going to continue.”

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