The congregation of St. Barnabas, Austin voted 192-2 on June 20 to leave the Episcopal Church and with their former vicar, Jeffrey Black, temporarily associate with Evangelical Covenant Church. In a meeting with the Rt. Rev. Don Wimberly, June 15, Black renounced his orders in the
Episcopal Church as of July 2.
Diocesan officials participated in what both groups describe as a "courteous and respectful" transition for the congregation.
"Our intention from the beginning of this was to provide an open door, for those members of St. Barnabas who chose to, to remain in the Episcopal Church," said Bishop Wimberly. "Clearly Jeff and members of his congregation have decided to pursue their lives as Christians in a different way. We, as the Episcopal Church, still have a mission and ministry in the northwest area of Austin and will meet soon to discuss plans for new work in the same area," he added.
The bishop granted Black's two requests upon acceptance of his renunciation: that it takes effect on July 2, the 29th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, and to provide four months of medical insurance. "This makes a big difference in my pension," Black said of the effective date.
Diocesan staff members Joel Shannon and the Rev. Andrew Doyle attended a congregational meeting at St. Barnabas on June 18 where Black announced his decision to renounce his orders and at which he related details of his meeting with Bishop Wimberly. Doyle and Shannon remained for about an hour to listen to members of the congregation whom Doyle said explained their leaving the Episcopal Church as a "matter of conscience, not anger with the diocese." The vote to leave was taken the following Sunday morning.
St. Barnabas was planted as an Episcopal mission in Northwest Austin in 1998 and moved to self-sufficiency in 2003. The congregation planned to build their new church on land purchased by the diocese. Black indicated that plans to build a permanent home for St. Barnabas were what precipitated the process of leaving the Episcopal Church. "Potential donors did not want to invest in something owned by the Episcopal Church [following actions of General Convention last summer]" he said.
Black said he was leading St. Barnabas' members in a decision process about their status within ECUSA when the bishop requested a meeting with him. He said he believed ECUSA had changed so much that the congregation of St. Barnabas no longer fit.
Black apologized to the bishop for not being more forthcoming about his actions. "I felt I had a moral obligation to get the people out," Black related in a phone interview following the vote. "I had invited them in. It became a different place and we needed to move on," he added. In the congregational meeting of June 18, a lay leader thanked diocesan representatives for the "help and graciousness" of the diocese over the years. He said their decisions were not about being angry at the diocese but expressed that they were radically uncomfortable with the Episcopal Church, Black said.
The congregation voted to support a move to the Evangelical Covenant Church for one to two years and if the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes (NACDP) emerges, "We may rejoin that," Black said.
The network, formed in January, 2004, was chartered to be "a true and legitimate expression of the world-wide Anglican Communion" for those opposed to two controversial actions by the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis: the ratification of the election of an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire, and the acknowledgment that same-sex blessings are part of the church's common life (C051) in some dioceses.
Although the bishops of the Diocese of Texas and the elected deputies to General Convention voted against consenting to the consecration of Gene Robinson and against the blessing of same sex unions, the diocese is committed to mission and ministry to all persons.
Black indicated that St. Barnabas had "a different relationship with the word of God" than did the rest of the Episcopal Church.
"The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Texas is energetically engaged in our mission and ministry to a hurting world. Our task is the transformation of lives as Christ directed us and that is what we will continue to be about," said Bishop Wimberly.