Oak Harbor church settles property dispute

The Rev. Rilla Barrett, of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oak Harbor, stands inside the church last week. A disagreement over who owns the church property was settled without litigation earlier this month. - Photo by Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
The Rev. Rilla Barrett, of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oak Harbor, stands inside the church last week. A disagreement over who owns the church property was settled without litigation earlier this month.
— image credit: Photo by Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

Members of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Oak Harbor celebrated a new beginning earlier this month.

Ownership of the church property was finally settled after a schism in the congregation brought about a decade of uncertainty.

The majority of the St. Stephen’s congregation, like many in other churches across the nation, voted to disassociate from the Episcopal Church 10 years ago over differences in interpretation of the Bible; the tipping point for many was in 2003 when Eugene Robinson became the first openly gay, non-celibate bishop.

Such actions led to lawsuits across the nation over the ownership of church properties.

In Oak Harbor, however, a property dispute was settled amicably this month without litigation.

Grace by the Sea, the Oak Harbor congregation that dissociated from the Episcopal Church in 2004, handed over the church property on Regatta Drive to the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and moved out.

A much smaller congregation, whose members supported the ordination of the gay bishop and stayed with the Episcopal Church all these years, can now use the large church property without scheduling conflicts or other hindrances.

In 2004, not everyone agreed with the decision to dissociate with the Episcopal diocese. Sandy and Bob Taylor, members of the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church since 1979, explained that they no longer felt welcome at their church and looked elsewhere for a place to worship.

A small group of folks who also left the church happened to meet at grocery stores, coffee shops and other places; they started talking.

“We found each other,” Sandy Taylor said, “but it was difficult. We were not an organized group. We didn’t see a reason to be an organized group in opposition to the people we went to church with, the people we prayed with.”

Pretty soon, the small but growing group started gathering together in homes. The late Wilma Patrick, a longtime member of the congregation, was the first to share her home.

They also met at the former Mitzel’s restaurant, which was playfully dubbed “Saint Mitzel’s,” Sandy Taylor said.

The diocese assigned a retired bishop, Rev. Sanford Hampton, a retired priest, Rev. Charles Forbes, and Rev. Dr. Rachel Taber-Hamilton to provide pastoral care and worship services to the small group.

Through it all, they focused on hope and forgiveness; they found the effort of reforming the congregation unexpectedly invigorating.

“It was a wonderful, spiritual and grace-filled experience,” parishioner Virginia Wagner said.

Meanwhile, a majority of the congregation at St. Stephen’s placed themselves under the authority of an Anglican bishop in Brazil and later joined the new Anglican Church in North America. The church was first renamed as St. Stephen’s Anglican Church and then adopted the new name, Grace By the Sea, in 2012.

Property disputes cropped up across the nation between breakaway congregations and the Episcopal Church. Many of the breakaway churches felt they were entitled to their local church property because they believed the national Episcopal Church had abandoned core teachings of the Anglican faith, according to a New York Times article.

In most cases, however, the Episcopal Church successfully held onto the properties throughout court challenges.

The United States Supreme Court declined in March to take up legal battle between five conservative Virginia congregations and the Episcopal Church, effectively siding with a lower court ruling that the Episcopal Church may keep the properties, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars.

In 2006, a covenant was signed by the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and Grace by the Sea for the joint use of the St. Stephen’s property. Episcopal congregant Jim Wagner said the facilities were supposed to be shared equally, but Grace by the Sea leaders wouldn’t allow the Episcopal congregation to use the main chapel until late on Sundays; services were held at the small All Saints Chapel instead.

The agreement came to an end this year.

Father Roger Vehorn, associate priest at Grace by the Sea, said church leaders felt it wasn’t Biblical to litigate the dispute over who owned the St. Stephen’s church property; he said the Episcopal Diocese made it clear that it would take the issue to court if Grace by the Sea didn’t relent.

“The only honorable choice was to walk away, and that’s what we did,” he said.

On Pentecost Sunday, June 8, the Grace by the Sea congregation met for the last time inside the church.

Vehorn said the Catholic church graciously agreed to share its facilities with Grace by the Sea. Worship services are Sunday morning at St. Mary’s Church in Coupeville and Tuesday at noon at St. Augustine’s in Oak Harbor, which is where Grace by the Sea has its office.

For congregants who never left the Episcopal Church, the property dispute settlement is a bittersweet resolution.

Some members of the Episcopal Church, many of them elderly women, opened their homes and kept the congregation together for all those years, but passed away before seeing the return of the church property. In addition to Wilma Patrick, there was Margot Wiess, Anna Mae Chapman, Evelyn Coffin and Les and Marilyn McClaine.

A handful of the diehard Episcopalians gathered at St. Stephen’s last Tuesday for a morning prayer led by Rev. Rilla Barrett. Among those for whom they prayed for are the members of Grace by the Sea.

In discussions afterward, they said that members of the two congregations never harbored hard feelings toward one another, though they believe local church leaders were responsible for fomenting the split.

Barbara Wihlborg, the unofficial historian of the church, said some members of the congregation stopped attending church before the vote to dissociate because of comments made from the pulpit against the stance national leaders were making on social issues.

The Episcopalians pointed out that the church has a history of standing up against social injustice. The General Convention permitted the ordination of women in 1976, declared racism a sin in 1991 and supported gay rights as early as 1976.

Parishioner Bob Taylor described the split within the church as “a tragedy.”

“We are a people of a wide faith,” he said.

Jim Wagner agreed, pointing to what Jesus said about judging others.

“Grace by the Sea opted to judge people. That’s how I see it,” he said.

Wagner explained that the Episcopal tradition of having a red door on a church means it’s “a safe place for anyone to come inside, regardless of sexual orientation, ethnicity.

“It just doesn’t matter.”

Father Vehorn, however, explained the local church leaders were concerned that the national Episcopal Church was straying from the words of the Bible.

“We realized we were dealing with two different understandings of what it meant to be a Christian.”

Concerns went “way beyond” homosexuality and the ordination of Bishop Robinson, Vehorn said.

“The General Convention (in 2003) couldn’t even confirm some of the basic beliefs of the church,” he said.

“It was real basic stuff.”

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