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Unity despite tensions in Charlotte's Episcopal community

Divisions in the Episcopal Church over homosexuality deepened last week when hundreds of conservative congregations announced plans to form a rival denomination in the United States. A handful of churches in Charlotte are part of that movement and they provide a striking contrast to some of the city's most established Episcopal churches. WFAE's Julie Rose visited two congregations last Sunday and filed this report. The members of All-Saints Anglican Church have been singing and praying for more than an hour. Then Father Filmore Strunk stands to share the news, "This week has been a most historic week. . . " He says they are joining with about 700 other churches in the United States - and about five here in Charlotte - to create a new denomination that rivals the Episcopal Church. The announcement is major for Strunk's parishioners and they erupt in applause and "Amens!" Last year, they followed him in splitting from St. Margaret's Episcopal Church. Larry Strawn is among them. "We are a very conservative group of people," says Strawn. "And I do believe the Episcopal Church in general is becoming more of a liberal congregation." Particularly on the issue of homosexuality. In recent years, the Episcopal Church has ordained an openly gay bishop and begun blessing gay marriages - unacceptable moves for some Episcopalians who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. "We really believe that Jesus came to liberate us from those things," says Dorcas Day, one of the 200 or so Charlotte Episcopalians who broke off to form All-Saints Anglican. They're a minority of the 16 Episcopal Churches in the Charlotte area, but a growing minority in the larger Episcopal community. They now become the new Anglican Church of North America and hope to be recognized as equals with the Episcopal Church by the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Pastor Jo Bailey Wells of Duke Divinity School says they still have much in common. "Absolutely. Now of course people are more aware of the differences right now than the similarities," says Wells. "But the shape of the worship service across the board, I would say, would be almost identical." . . . as are their scriptures and prayers. Music is the main contrast. At All Saints Anglican, for example, they sing to a piano and guitar. Charlotte's oldest Episcopal Church - St. Peter's uptown - is known for its traditional organ music. And as an urban Episcopal Church, it's known for something else. "It's the most diverse of the Episcopal Churches here in Charlotte," says St. Peter's parishioner David Jacobs. "Not only by age, but by sex, by sexual orientation," adds Jennifer Austin. "I just knew I needed to find a place that was going to be supportive, having come from the Bay Area," says another parishioner - Andre Fleuriel - who is openly gay. Father David Pittman - the rector of St. Peter's - speaks carefully when asked if his parish performs gay unions. No, because gay marriage is illegal in North Carolina. But, "that doesn't mean that we don't have services from time to time to celebrate with a couple - who happen to be the same gender - their relationship." But, he says, that's not what St. Peter's is about. "Our business here is worshipping God the best way we can and serving those around us, especially those who are in need," says Pittman. Over at All-Saints Anglican, Father Strunk is surrounded by parishioners and casseroles for an after-meeting potluck. He may be a lot more conservative, but his focus is quite similar to Father Pittman's. "I haven't preached a sermon on gay marriage in two years, I guess?" says Strunk. "Most of my sermons are about ordinary folks trying to make sense of their lives and follow God's will." That message resonates partly because there is a middle ground. There are Episcopalians with sympathies on both sides, who've chosen just to focus on their own faith and the community service for which their church is known. It's poignant, then, to see the members of All-Saints Anglican and St. Peter's Episcopal bowing their heads in the same prayer. "Let us pray for the needs of this whole world. . ." Across the schism, their pastors pray in unison. ". . . for the mission and unity of the church for which He died. And especially for the unity of the church in our country and in this city." A prayer for unity at a time when divisions in the Episcopal Church grow even deeper.