On Monday December 3rd, we polled the congregation regarding the recent split between The Diocese of South Carolina and The Episcopal Church. This was not an easy vote for any of us. I myself have been nurtured in all the rich diversity of worship of The Episcopal Church from the simple Rite I service in Summerall Chapel at The Citadel, to the High Church worship of St Paul’s in Monroe, NC where I was taught the heritage of The Episcopal Church and confirmed, to the contemporary worship of St Andrew’s in Mt Pleasant, the parish from which I went to seminary. Yet in all these different settings, I could rely on the preaching and the worship to be grounded in the faith once delivered. I have watched with sadness as that faith has been pushed more and more to the sidelines throughout The Episcopal Church.
Last week I had dinner with a parishioner who reminded me that a year and a half ago, I had predicted this chain of events, but he told me my timing was off. I was hoping for 5 or 10 more years to get ready for this. The Scriptures assure us, however, that God is sovereign and that He works all things for the good of those who love Him. I have to remind myself of that frequently with the trials that currently face us.
From the time I came on as Rector, I have been working to be ready to respond should a split occur between the Diocese and the National Church. My aim in this has been two-fold. First, I have endeavored to make sure Trinity could make a choice unencumbered by threats, manipulation, or coercion. I feel pleased with how well that has happened. My second aim has been to keep Trinity together under the Gospel. If Trinity is not together, our witness to the Gospel will be weakened. If Trinity is not under the Gospel, our labor is in vain. That is the task that now lies before us.
When I heard the count Monday night, I have to admit that my heart broke for those in the minority of this vote. Having been an evangelical in The Episcopal Church I know what it’s like to hold a minority position. I continue to hope that those who did not vote with the majority know that Trinity bears them no ill will, and they are welcome to continue to be a part of our church. That being said, I know there are some who will not be able to follow us down this path. While I understand and respect those decisions, I grieve over them.
I grieve as well at the damage done to the body of Christ. Some will regard this move as schismatic. I would gently remind you that what has happened at Trinity has not happened in a vacuum. Neither have the affairs of The Diocese of South Carolina. The pain felt from this is similar to the pain of divorce. However, I would hold that Trinity did not vote for this divorce. To carry the analogy, Trinity was put in a position much more like that of a child of divorcing parents. We had the difficult and awkward choice to make about who we will now live with. And while this move separated us from the less than 2 million Anglicans in The Episcopal Church, it has strengthened our ties with the 80 million Anglicans around the world. Many will disagree with me, but I believe the diocese is more united with the body of Christ now than it was before. Nevertheless, the fracturing that is taking place in the American church is still painful.
My thoughts turn now to the future of Trinity. Certainly we face some difficult days in the future. The posture that The Episcopal Church has taken towards departing parishes and dioceses has also been a source of grief. I continue to pray, plan, and work to make sure that those forces do not disrupt the fellowship and mission of Trinity.
With all that there is to grieve over, we have more over which we can rejoice. First is the Gospel. The benefits of the Gospel can never be robbed from us. I take great comfort in that as I wait to see if there will be any moves against Trinity from the steering committee being organized in South Carolina by the National Church. As the Scottish Anglican pastor and hymn writer, Henry Lyte wrote
Let the world despise and leave me, they have left my Savior, too;
Human hearts and looks deceive me; Thou art not, like them, untrue.
And while Thou shalt smile upon me, God of wisdom, love and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me, show Thy face and all is bright.
God has a habit of showing His face most brightly in our darkest hours. And in that I rejoice.
I also rejoice that for the time being, Trinity no longer lives under an ecclesiastical structure that has not only forgotten the gospel, but has forgotten its central place in the life of the church. Although we will need to continue to contend for this right, we no longer live under the threat of having faithful leaders removed for their commitment to the gospel. Trinity does not have to worry about future generations not having the ability to choose a rector who is orthodox and biblical. Trinity, and the other churches in The Diocese of South Carolina, no longer have to establish their identity by telling people what we are not, but can now do so by speaking positively of who we are.
I have long understood that anything worth doing is not easy. As I look at the road ahead of us, I am excited even in the midst of my anxiety. We have the opportunity now to begin to put ecclesiastical wranglings behind us and labor to win Myrtle Beach for the Gospel. Part of the dysfunction in both the conservative and liberal wings of The Episcopal Church is that though we talk about each other, we do not talk to each other. Part of the blessing of being Rector is that I do not have the ability to only speak with those who agree with me. I would encourage you to take your frustrations, concerns, and wounds and speak directly with your brothers and sisters in Christ with whom you disagree. The other option is that we huddle into likeminded groups of people who will agree with all of our thoughts and who will neither challenge nor be challenged by us. If the process of healing is to begin, we must begin talking to one another.
Most importantly though, is that we let the Gospel do its work on us. At the core of the Gospel message is that you and I were evil beyond our own ability to save ourselves. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved!”(Eph 2:4-5) God is not looking at Trinity and giving thanks that we are all so holy that we are able to save our church. Paul goes on to tell us “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”(Eph 2:8-9) As much as He rejoices when His children are faithful to Him, He does so knowing that His grace has preceded and enabled that same faithfulness. As we move forward in this season of the life of our church, let us do so not boasting in our own righteousness but rather in the knowledge of how “the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12).”