By David W. Virtue
More than 300 members, 90% of the congregation of St. John's Episcopal Church in New Braunfels, have left The Episcopal Church citing the church's failure to uphold the authority of Holy Scripture and recent sexual innovations including the consecration of an openly homosexual priest to the episcopacy.
The departure process from the Diocese of West Texas under the Rt. Rev. Gary R. Lillibridge, a moderately conservative bishop, was fair, said the Rev. Dr. Chuck L. Thebeau rector of the Evangelical catholic parish, in a phone call to VOL. "We feel relieved that this has been accomplished in an amicable manner and that we are now set free to carry out the mission the Lord has given to us."
Thebeau and his congregation have not decided which overseas jurisdiction they will choose, but they have been getting advice from Kenyan bishops Bill Atwood and Bill Murdoch. "We're members of the Anglican Communion Network and we will stay under their oversight for the moment. Geographically we are close to the Diocese of Ft. Worth," he told VOL.
In a letter addressed to the clergy and senior/bishop's wardens of West Texas from Bishop Lillibridge, which VOL obtained, he said the diocese had signed an agreement that will enable both those remaining and those departing to move forward with their life and ministry.
Lillibridge said the assets of the St. John's, including all bank accounts, assets real and personal property, will remain with the continuing diocesan congregation. "The diocese will sell a 20-acre tract of land in New Braunfels to the departing group for $85,400 and will also assume responsibility for an outstanding note on the property for $36,000", wrote Lillibridge.
The bishop said those leaving must be gone from the church premises by September 30. "The agreement is conditioned on the fact that neither a member of the diocese nor the Presiding Bishop takes legal or canonical action by Sept. 26 to prevent the agreement from being consummated." Lillibridge said. Retired Diocesan Bishop Jim Folts will serve as interim priest for the remaining congregation.
Fr. Thebeau told VOL that the 300 departing members wanted to go because of the growing distance between what they believe and what the Episcopal Church has become.
"We are among the top 15 highest attended congregations in the diocese of 91 parishes," Thebeau told VOL. "We eagerly await a new North American Anglican Province."
Thebeau said he was not positive about women's ordination, but his congregation does use the 1979 Prayer Book.
Thebeau said he was glad and very impressed that Bishop Lillibridge voted no in the "deposition" of Pittsburgh Bishop Robert Duncan at the recent House of Bishops in Salt Lake City.
Asked where he will take his congregation in the short term, Thebeau said they will worship at a facility formerly owned by the Lutherans and now owned by a Baptist group that uses it for counseling and social ministry. "We will have unfettered access to the sanctuary. We plan a vigorous evangelistic outreach to the community." New Braunfels is a city of 50,000.
Thebeau said St. Joseph's Anglican (APA) in New Braunfels has offered space at their facility for midweek meetings.
The priest said he does not plan to renounce his orders and hopes he can obtain letters Dimissory from the bishop so the relationship can end amicably. He said he was asked to renounce his orders, but he has refused to do so.
Thebeau, 52, holds a D. Min degree from Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA, and has been a priest for 27 years in The Episcopal Church. He was within three years of full retirement at age 55.
"I hate to think what this will do to me and my family, but the gospel is more important than money. "We will have a budget in excess of $400,000 and more has been promised once we leave. We have substantial givers and I have been told money will be forthcoming once we have broken free."
Thebeau said he would describe about a third of the parishes in the diocese as being orthodox.