The Tale of Two Churches

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ANN STATES FOR TIME

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

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Then came Beach's announcement. Many were thrilled. More than 100 people immediately joined him at Holy Cross. Others were perplexed or heartbroken. "We're traditional people," says St. Alban's charter member Sue Henson. "We're not for Gene Robinson's election, but differences can only be worked out if you stay." Marian Sweeney is peeved that Beach gave so little notice. "You don't make a move like that in a week," she alleges. "He had been accepted by the Bishop of Bolivia before he announced he was leaving. He kept us in a holding pattern, saying Be patient and pray. And then he left. We felt deceived."

Hearing such allegations, Beach tears up all over again. His incompatibility with his old job, he says, crystallized for him after a difficult early December meeting with his boss, J. Neil Alexander, the Episcopal bishop in Atlanta. "It hit me like a slap in the face. If I stayed, I'd lose my soul," he says. He claims that aspects of his new situation weren't finalized until just before or just after his announcement. In any case, he didn't want to share preliminary planning with his flock because "it would be manipulative. I could have roused 90% of the church to walk out," he says. "Where the betrayal may come in [is that] I told people that I wouldn't start another church." Days later, Beach denies promising he wouldn't start a new church, but he does not retract another admission: "What any rector wants to leave behind is a thriving congregation. I've left behind a broken one."

The two churches that emerged from his decision certainly face very different challenges. Holy Cross, abustle with anticipation and unburdened by differences with its hierarchy, is clearly the happier place. Its members support Beach when he says Holy Cross represents "not a rebellion but a refocusing on what a church is supposed to be." The new, 200-plus congregation includes not just St. Alban's refugees but also ex-Episcopalians from all over north central Georgia. "I'm conservative," says Ken Lander, St. Alban's former praise and worship leader. "Foley took a stand, and I went with him. I couldn't raise my children in the Episcopal Church." Eight Bible-study classes and a baby-sitting service suggest that others feel similarly. If there is any looming shadow, it is that Strickland, Holy Cross's financial angel, founded two other churches and abandoned them after clashes with their pastors. Cautions a previous beneficiary: "He'll put $1 million into Holy Cross. But what happens when Foley makes him unhappy?"

St. Alban's has more immediate concerns. It lost not only Beach but also as much as half of its congregation, a third of its vestry, its organist and, says a warden, "half of almost everything elseushers, choir, acolytes, people who make the coffee." The average age of congregants has jumped to somewhere in the 50s, and there are far fewer children. Donations are down a third. "All the years we struggled to build this church, we're right back where we started," says a desolate Henson. "How do you hire a rector without money?" Bishop Alexander insists that the diocese will help out as needed, however, and junior warden Steve Poole says the church hasn't dipped into its reserve fund. Citing a new lunch-and-tutoring program for local grade schoolers, Poole maintains that after a tough winter, St. Alban's has found "new energy and strength. There's nothing broken here. It's just smaller."

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