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Large Episcopal parish leaves diocese St. Bartholomew's splits over gay issue

The area's largest Episcopal parish plans to split from the Diocese of Western New York and leave behind the Town of Tonawanda church buildings it has called home for 48 years.

Members of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church will become the first local congregation to break ties with the Episcopal Church since the contentious 2003 ratification of an openly homosexual bishop by the national governing body.

"The gay issue is the straw that broke the camel's back," said the Rev. Arthur W. Ward Jr., rector of St. Bartholomew's Church. "The Episcopal Church from our perspective has turned its back on the Lord, it's turned its back on scripture and the word of God."

St. Bart's will join hundreds of parishes around the country that have abandoned the Episcopal Church because of philosophical and theological differences, particularly over interpretation of scripture, the path to salvation and the acceptance of same-sex marriages.

The congregation, however, won't engage in a legal battle for the property on Brighton and Fries roads -- as was done by several churches around the country, including in New York.

Instead, the group plans to buy the former Temple Beth El property on Eggert Road, less than a mile from its current location. It anticipates a December move.

Bishop J. Michael Garrison met with Ward on Tuesday and expressed disappointment with the priest's intention to leave the diocese. But Garrison said he would not try to block the move.

"Obviously, I lament the fact that they've come to a place where they feel they need to do this," said Garrison, who voted in favor of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson's ratification in 2003. "Our hope and prayer is that we can do this as amicably as possible. Obviously, I'm disappointed. There's a long tradition in the Episcopal Church of loyal opposition."

An Episcopal parish will continue in the church building at Brighton and Fries roads for any members of St. Bart's who wish to remain there, Garrison said.

"We are ready and able to carry on with worship, pastoral care and administration. We stand ready to support and work with continuing Episcopalians who have been a part of St. Bartholomew's, as well as those who have felt disenfranchised by the position of its leadership," he said.

But two informal congregational votes, one in May and another in September, suggested that nearly all of the current membership will be leaving, said warden and longtime member Carl Calabrese.

"The congregation of the church is really united in this," he said.

Ward has requested a transfer to the Diocese of Argentina, which is part of the province of the Southern Cone in the Worldwide Anglican Communion. Other clergy in the parish also will request transfers, Ward said.

"I'm not going to stand in the way of that," Garrison said.

The Southern Cone province, led by Primate Bishop Gregory James Venables, is sympathetic to American churches and dioceses that disagreed with the 2003 consecration of Robinson as a bishop. Ultimately, those churches and dioceses hope to be able to form a new American province.

The move by St. Bart's was not a surprise. The congregation has been at odds with the Episcopal Church, the U.S. province of the Worldwide Anglican Communion, for at least a decade.

The Robinson vote launched a wave of defections from the Episcopal Church and considerable consternation within the Worldwide Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members.

Just last week, the governing authority of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh voted to join the province of the Southern Cone, and dioceses in Fort Worth, Texas, and Quincy, Ill., are expected to participate in a similar vote in November.

In New York, defecting congregations typically have lost in legal efforts to leave their Episcopal dioceses and hang onto the property.

For example, All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church in Irondequoit, a Rochester suburb, fought in State Supreme Court to keep its property after being kicked out of the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester for withholding dues payments.

The courts ruled in favor of the diocese, which sold the property in 2007 to another church.

"The laws are very clear that the buildings belong to the diocese," said Calabrese. "That just wasn't really a very practical option."

The Episcopal Church also has taken a hard line against negotiating with defecting congregations over property, so members of St. Bart's decided to search for new worship space.

"This was the last resort," said Ward.

The former Temple Beth El became available following a merger in May with Temple Shaarey Zedek on Getzville Road in Amherst.

"What seemed to be a worst-case scenario has actually worked out beautifully," Ward said.

The St. Bart's congregation was beginning to outgrow its 13,000-square-foot facility, which was built in 1960, he said. At 37,000 square feet, the Temple Beth El site is nearly three times the size.

With average weekend attendance of more than 500 people, St. Bart's ranks as the largest Episcopal congregation in upstate New York.

If all of those people leave, it could be a huge blow to the diocese. The parish accounts for about 10 percent of average weekend attendance throughout the entire diocese, which includes 63 congregations in Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming counties.

Garrison acknowledged that the loss would have a great impact, but he also said that the congregation had largely separated itself from the diocese back in 2003, when it began withholding "fair share" pledges in support of diocesan operations.

The loss of the parish's financial support, which amounted to nearly $70,000 per year, forced the diocese to lay off two full-time staff members and make other budget cuts in 2004.

A handful of smaller area parishes had participated with St. Bart's in protesting the 2003 consecration of Robinson. But Garrison said he didn't anticipate any more priests or parishes breaking away.

"Those of like mind and belief have gathered at St. Bartholomew's," he said.

The defections amounted to only a small percentage of Episcopal parishes nationwide, said Garrison, who is optimistic that the Episcopal Church is going in the right direction, despite all of the recent turmoil.

"I think we are moving forward and focusing on mission, on involvement in the millennium development goals, on being an inclusive part of the body of Christ," he said.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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