Mary McKell planned a reception for 40 people. Then 60, then 80.
She never dreamed that nearly 300 people from around the Diocese of Southern Ohio would fill every seat in St. Paul’s, Chillicothe. They came from Gallipolis and Cincinnati, Dayton and Wayneville and Columbus, clergy and lay, young and old, in support of the “faithful remnant,” the 30 or so members who stayed committed to St. Paul’s and the Episcopal Church after their former rector and at least half of the congregation left this fall to form a new church. The group split from the Episcopal Church over the election at the 2003 General Convention of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as bishop of New Hampshire.
Bishop Herbert Thompson Jr. invited clergy and lay people from throughout the diocese to gather Oct. 3 for a Eucharist in Celebration of the Ministry of the Church at St. Paul’s, the third-oldest congregation in the diocese. More than half of the diocese’s 85 congregations sent members, and at least 60 clergy processed down the aisle. Several church banners from throughout the diocese hung along the wall of St. Paul’s, and folding chairs accommodated the overflow crowd.
“The support today really made us feel good. I never would have imagined this many people would come here to support us,” said McKell, who has been a member of St. Paul’s for nearly 50 years. Her husband, Joseph, is the new senior warden. “You don’t just leave the church … but here we are, thrown into this. But we’ll do the best we can, with God’s help.”
And with the help of the bishops, congregations and the diocese, pledged Bishop Thompson.
“We know the difficult season through which you of St. Paul’s, Chillicothe, have come, and the rupture that has torn the fabric of the church and torn your hearts as well. It has been hard. You are the faithful remnant,” Bishop Thompson said. “We have come from across the diocese to show you that you are not alone. We love you. We support you. We thank you for your stewardship of the Episcopal Church in Chillicothe. We are inspired by your faithfulness, and we thank God for you.”
Despite his vote against the election of Bishop Robinson, Bishop Thompson has made clear that his energy and efforts are focused on unity and carrying out the ministry and mission to which God calls each person.
With the afternoon sun streaming through the stained glass windows, Bishop Thompson preached a forceful sermon on the unity of the church.
“Jesus, on the last night before His crucifixion, broke bread with his disciples, washed their feet and prayed for them. He didn't pray that they would be successful, protected from the troubles of the world. He prayed that they would be one as He and the Father are one. Jesus prays for unity, that the world might believe that the Father sent Him,” Bishop Thompson said.
“Through our oneness and love, we proclaim to a broken and divided world the good news of God in Christ. Our purpose is not to help maintain St. Paul's Church or to help it keep its doors open. Our purpose is to help lead St. Paul's Church into the world. I believe St. Paul's is poised to be an important vehicle for God in Chillicothe and the beyond…Be what you are: a church of the resurrected Jesus. A church that puts aside disagreements and decides to live, work and worship together and proclaim the good news of Christ to a broken world.”
Two full vans and two carloads of people from St. Margaret’s, Trotwood (Dayton), traveled to Chillicothe for the service.
“We needed to come and support the people of St. Paul’s,” said the Rev. Benjamin Speare-Hardy, rector of St. Margaret’s. “It’s a difficult time in the church, but a time when we really need to stick together. We need to be strong right now.”
Kathleen Holland listened to the “heart-lifting” sermon from the same pews she’s sat her entire life. She was baptized at St. Paul’s, confirmed and married there. The strife of the past several months has been wrenching, said Holland, 50, especially to see longtime personal relationships severed.
“This is my church,” she said, eyes watering. “It’s been real tough, but we’re coming back together.”
Bishop Thompson said he was saddened by the decision of those who left St. Paul’s. But he nevertheless urged the congregation to remember that those who left “are not the enemy. I bid you pray for them as I trust they will pray for us. May God bless them.
“I don't know fully why things like this happen in a congregation. It is not God's will. The biblical story is of God healing, restoring, forgiving, reconciling and loving His people and His world. It is about fixing that which is broken, standing with us, going before us. That wonderful hymn says, ‘When through the deep waters I cause thee to go, the rivers of woe shall not thee overflow. For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless and sanctify, to thee thy deepest distress.’ The crowning point of God's love and care for us is the resurrection. St. Paul's has been through Good Friday and now the day of resurrection begins.”
Onetime senior warden and member for 50 years, Paul Seufzer said the service and support gave him renewed hope.
“I felt a sense of overpowering unity and strength,” he said. “The place was bustin’ at the seams. It was fuller than I ever remember it. It was great to see all the pews filled.”
As the service ended and the sun set, at St. Paul’s, Chillicothe, a new day dawned.