The Tale of Two Churches

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HOLY CROSS CHURCH: The breakaway group boasts youth and righteous energy

At 7 A.M. one recent sunday, Larry Finney, John Tomlinson and George Harrison, like carnies setting up a tent, began repurposing the cafeteria at the Loganville, Ga., middle school. First they carried in a dozen fake potted plants; then they replaced the lunch tables with a set of heavy risers. Next came an electric organ, boxes full of things like altar cloths and processional candles, and a rack bearing priestly vestments. By 9 o'clock the cafeteria was no longer a cafeteria; it was the sanctuary of the Holy Cross Anglican Church, where the priest, a magnetic 45-year-old named Foley Beach, led his flock in solemn yet joyous worship. "Church on wheels," quipped Harrison, a congregant. Indeed, the transformation and the service's ardor made it seem almost as if the Holy Spirit had decided to whip up a church out of thin air.

In reality, however, Holy Cross (which broke ground for a building on Sept. 19) was born in pain and recrimination. Last January, Beach, then the beloved pastor at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in nearby Monroe, Ga., shocked the members of his congregation by telling them that after 12 years as their spiritual leader, he was leaving not only them but also their denomination, the Episcopal Church U.S.A. Weeping, he explained that the church's attitude toward gays, which he termed its "immoral crisis," had led him to "the conclusion that I can no longer serve the Lord as an Episcopal priest." Instead, he would begin two new alliances: one with Frank Lyons, the conservative Anglican Bishop of Bolivia, enabling Beach to end-run the Episcopal American hierarchy in favor of its parent Anglicanism; and the other as pastor of a brand-new church — largely financed, it was later announced, by businessman Clyde Strickland, who would donate $100,000 and 10 acres worth $770,000. This new life, Beach told his stunned listeners, would commence in less than a month. "Some of you will feel called to join me" and some not, he said. "Regardless, please know that you have my utmost respect and love."

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No two breakups are alike, and Beach's split with St. Alban's has its singular aspects. (There was no squabble over common assets, for one thing.) But it may also be predictive. In electing the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, an actively gay man, as a bishop in 2003, the Episcopal Church U.S.A. placed itself at the excruciating center of American mainline Christianity's struggles over homosexuality and at odds with much of the international Anglican Communion to which it belongs. In mid-October the communion will publish a task-force report expected to address the effect of Robinson's election on the American church's Anglican status; a task-force news release promised "radical changes." Conservatives hope that at a minimum, the findings will act as a lever to force the establishment of some sort of alternative U.S. hierarchy for traditionalists. If not, they warn, there will be thousands of defections like Beach's. Thus far, the Anglican Communion Network, a kind of conservative hierarchy in waiting, claims affiliation with more than 500 Episcopal parishes. (An Episcopal spokesman says the number is lower.)

Until this year, few would have picked St. Alban's as a model for schism. Arriving in 1992, Beach transformed an aging, liturgically conservative, 35-member congregation by initiating community-outreach programs and a livelier second Sunday service. Before long, the place was hopping. Attendance topped 200, and grateful Albanites invested in a $1.6 million parish hall and a $100,000 pastor's office. They knew Beach strongly opposed the Robinson elevation — he had conducted "burial rites" for Episcopalianism at the time — but most of them agreed with him and were willing to battle beside him for a denominational reversal.

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