A Constant Parish, Now Called to Leave?

Loudoun County, USA - They stayed as other churches left.

They stayed through the ordination of a gay bishop, and the lengthy arguments that tested long-standing beliefs and frayed friendships. All the while, the congregation of the tiny church in rural Loudoun County kept the word "Episcopal" on the Sunday bulletins because members believed it was God's will.

But last week, as their denomination inched closer to ordaining more gay bishops and blessing same-sex unions, parishioners at the Church of Our Redeemer were left to wonder: How much longer could they remain Episcopalians?

It is a dilemma facing theologically conservative churches across the country as the denomination grows increasingly accepting toward homosexuality, pushing some parishes away from the Episcopal faith and leaving others, such as Our Redeemer, on the fence.

"It's not something you consider lightly, leaving. It would be painful and affect a lot of relationships," said church member Michael Hollinger, 37. "But at the same time, the decisions they're making in the larger church are getting harder and harder to accept."

At the heart of that struggle is Our Redeemer's priest, the Rev. John Thomas Sheehan, 62, who spent last week studying the resolutions recently passed at his denomination's national convention, parsing each sentence for meaning and intent. He has talked to fellow clergymen and asked God for guidance through the uncertainty.

Leaning on the Lord has long been his solace. The first time God spoke to him, Sheehan said, he was 15. It was during a dream and only a single word: "Come." He believed God was calling him to priesthood, a path Sheehan decided not to follow. Two decades later, married with kids and working as a political affairs director on Capitol Hill, Sheehan saw God again in a dream. This time, the call was too strong to resist.

In 2001, after three years in seminary, Sheehan arrived at Our Redeemer, a small rural church steeped in history. It began as an Episcopal church in 1890, when a strip of land that once belonged to President James Monroe was set aside for a house of worship.

Since then, the unchanging nature of faith has defined the congregation.

As other churches modernized -- bringing in hip worship bands and loosening liturgy -- Our Redeemer stuck with its old hymns and routines dictated by the Book of Common Prayer, a collection of service instructions that dates back to the mid-1500s.

Even as the parish has grown, tripling in the past eight years, new members have asked church leaders not to change a thing. The world, they said, is in such constant flux that they are comforted by a church with an unchanging foundation.

But their denomination has changed rapidly.

The most significant shift came in 2003, when V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire became the first openly gay priest to be elected bishop. As news of his ascension reached the church in Aldie, Sheehan struggled over how to respond.

Because of his past career on Capitol Hill, Sheehan decided early on that he would never bring politics to the pulpit at Our Redeemer. Sundays were sacred and to be devoted to God, he decided, not to the controversies of man.

But he asked himself, "Is this political or theological? Should I speak up?"

The church's senior warden told him: "You have to realize people are going to ask about this. It's something you're going to have to address anyway."

So Sheehan began working on a sermon, based on the ordination vows all priests take. These vows, he said in his sermon, require a priest to uphold the teachings of the Bible, and the Bible to him clearly taught that homosexuality is wrong.

It was a tough sermon for preacher and audience. Some in his parish agreed with what he said, but not all. A gay couple in the congregation found it difficult to stay. The week after his sermon, one member angrily told him that he shouldn't have brought politics up to the pulpit -- that he had abused his position.

"As long as you're here, I'll never darken the door of this church again," she told him.

Stricken by her words, Sheehan read his sermon again and again, agonizing over whether he had crossed a line.

"I don't hate anyone," he said. "We are a welcoming church. I don't think this was a matter of personal feeling. It was about what we believe the Scripture says."

Three years later, in 2006, Sheehan found himself facing the issue once again. A cluster of conservative churches in Northern Virginia was preparing to formally break with the Episcopal Church.

Sheehan and lay leaders talked about whether they should join the breakaway movement. They decided God wanted them to stay and fight for what they believed to be true.

A handful of other conservative congregations in the Virginia diocese, about five in all, chose to do the same. "It was a difficult decision for all of us," said the Rev. Charles Alley, whose church in Richmond decided to stay.

It's unclear what Our Redeemer will do this time around.

On Sunday, as the service began in the tiny chapel, Sheehan deliberately preached a sermon unrelated to the controversy. He had decided not to address it from the pulpit. The congregation will instead discuss developments at its weekly Wednesday meetings.

But Sundays, Sheehan said, are sacred.

For that, parishioner Linda Bailey said she was grateful. "We can't let these things divide us," she said after the service. "We have to hold on to what we have in common as a church."

The church as a whole will have to decide its future. Still, Sheehan has his leanings. "My personal feeling is that God has not yet called us to leave. So the question becomes, 'How do we stay?' "