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An extinct parish celebrates the Eucharist

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An extinct parish celebrates the Eucharist

by Douglas LeBlanc

IRONDEQUOIT, N.Y. — On a bright and cool Sunday morning in this suburb of Rochester, the tensions between the Diocese of Rochester and an evangelical congregation led to this spectacle: Bishop Jack McKelvey sat in protest through a Holy Eucharist.

One day before, on Nov. 19, the diocese’s annual convention agreed to a proposal from the diocesan council that made All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church extinct, at least in the eyes of the diocese. Approval of this resolution, based on a rare diocesan canon, means the diocese considers the Rev. David Harnish, rector of All Saints since 1986, its former rector; considers the All Saints vestry dissolved; and considers the building and all assets of the parish to be in diocesan hands.

The approved resolution resulted from the parish’s repeatedly declining to pay its $16,000 apportionment for 2005. Parish leaders said their consciences no longer allow them to support the diocese because it favors ordaining gay clergy and blessing gay couples. For All Saints, these leaders said, it became a question of the authority Scripture has over the lives of Christians.

In a letter dated Nov. 15, McKelvey attempted to forbid Harnish from celebrating the Eucharist on Nov. 20, the morning after diocesan convention’s vote.

“I will come to the church on Sunday morning at the regular time to conduct a prayer service and be available with others of my staff to answer any and all questions which members of your congregation may have,” McKelvey wrote to Harnish and wardens Bud Roberts and Frances Miller.

Instead, vestry member Al Bagdonas and a plainclothes security officer met McKelvey at the door. Bagdonas told McKelvey he was welcome only as a fellow worshiper, not as a substitute for Harnish.

“I’m here to share my pastoral care with anyone who may be here,” said McKelvey, who brought along a plainclothes security man of his own. “Your rector has been informed that he’s not authorized to conduct this service, so I will not participate in it.”

McKelvey was true to that promise. He sat on the next-to-last pew, on the left side of the nave, as the crucifer processed past him. He sat through hymns. He sat through prayers. He sat through the Nicene Creed. He stood only when greeted at the peace by Bagdonas and several other All Saints parishioners.

In a brief sermon, Harnish referred to the concept of extinction. Fiery trials, he said, might turn Christians into burnt offerings, or might lead people to declare them extinct. But fiery trials also may purify Christians and give them new power to preach the gospel.

Harnish also tied the idea of extinction to the dry bones seen by the prophet Ezekiel, and spoke of how those bones came alive at the command of God. “His life starts commanding us to come alive inside,” Harnish said. “We become a temple of the Holy Spirit, a dwelling place for God here on earth. ... Once we might have been an endangered species, but through faith we are alive.”

After the service, a subdued McKelvey met reporters on the sidewalk leading to the front door of All Saints. “I’m concerned about the people in this congregation. We will make decisions down the road, as they become necessary,” he said. “We have no reason to be precipitous. We want to do our best to care for all concerned.”

McKelvey said the service demonstrated that all parties in the dispute consider themselves Christians, adding that he believes they all are, albeit with major theological differences. (One difference was clear: All Saints invokes the Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The convention Eucharist referred to the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer and Enlivener.)

During the diocesan convention, which met on Nov. 18 and 19, McKelvey and deputies who favored the dissolution said that All Saints had removed itself from the diocese by refusing to pay its apportionment.

McKelvey referred to the parish’s pending expulsion in his otherwise upbeat annual address on the convention’s opening evening: “We are saddened and perhaps confused about the actions we are called to consider in relationship to All Saints Church, Irondequoit. This action is not taken precipitously, but rather following much prayer, conversation, and heart-rending discernment. The resolutions before this convention ask for diocesan actions to which our canons call us. These are actions that you must consider when a congregation decides it does not wish to be a part of the family. May we make the decisions without malice and wish that those who choose to walk another path do so with our blessing.”

Several delegates spoke against the proposal.

“This is a liberal diocese, probably one of the most liberal in the country,” said Larry Rockwell of St. John’s, Clifton Springs. “I don’t think we are treating this group fairly. We are looking for technicalities to tell them they are no longer part of our diocese.”

“What is wrong with being more patient, trying a little longer?” said Sandra Curtis of St. James, Hammondsport. “After all, are we not the church that believed Saddam Hussein needed time for the world to negotiate with him?”

Carolyn Garman of St. Mark’s, Penn Yan, said she talked with Harnish on the opening night of convention as they both stood at the back of the room. She compared it to African Americans being at the back of the bus during decades of racial segregation, prompting some gasps from the delegates. “I just feel like they’re being treated like second-class citizens,” she said. Garman later read aloud from a children’s adaptation of Jesus’ parable about the one lost sheep.

Lynn Sinnott of Zion Church, Palmyra, said on both days of the convention that she objected to All Saints calling on the rest of the diocese to repent of its views on homosexuality. “It has been entirely ‘If you do not repent and agree with our parish’s theology, we will not support the diocese.’” Sinnott quoted her six-year-old son: “Mom, why are the important decisions so hard?”

Rockwell twice attempted to derail the proposal: once by trying to table it, which McKelvey rejected as out of order, then by postponing discussion until the next diocesan convention, which would meet after General Convention 2006. The latter effort failed on a booming voice vote.

McKelvey called on the convention chaplain to lead the delegates in prayer. The delegates prayed in silence, heard a collect for the purification of the church and then said the Lord’s Prayer aloud.

Then, on another resounding voice vote, they declared All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church, Irondequoit, extinct.

“Goodbye now,” Harnish said on his way out of the room, “and God bless you.”