Georgia Pentecostals Become Episcopalians in Blend of Traditional Liturgy and Evangelical Fervor

Episcopal News Service. April 26, 1990 [90106]

Skip Connett, Religion Editor for The Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Georgia.

VALDOSTA, Georgia, April 15 -- Imagine two painters -- one expressionist, the other a realist -- collaborating on a portrait of Christ. Imagine them overcoming conflicts of style and perspective for the sake of a new vision, and you begin to understand what was accomplished here Easter in a converted warehouse.

Stan White is a fourth-generation Pentecostal pastor whose vision for unifying the old church with the new has captured national attention. Sunday evening he stood at the altar, alongside five Episcopal bishops, groping for words to explain what was happening:

"Can you sense the feeling of history in the air, or am I dreaming?" the soft-spoken, 27-year-old asked more than 700 celebrants crowded into the Church of the King. "People said they couldn't believe our congregation would do it, but I believe God had a hand in it. I believe it's a modern-day miracle."

The "miracle" in Valdosta was a unique marriage of traditional liturgy with evangelical fervor as 214 members of the Church of the King were confirmed Sunday evening into the Episcopal Church. In a service like no other, Valdosta's Episcopal population suddenly had almost doubled.

From the start, the Rev. Jacoba Hurst, rector of St. Anne's Church in Tifton who helped to plan the liturgy, knew that achieving the right blend of charismatic expressiveness and high-church dignity would make this the hardest service he had ever organized.

The resulting chemistry was a dynamic synergism that inspired standing ovations and joyous praise. Flanking a procession of miters and copes and incense were jean-clad couples beating tambourines and young men scissor-kicking and throwing up their hands. A lively liturgical dance was followed by a solemn consecration of the altar. And then there was the ever-present, eclectic music, so central to the Church of the King's expression, ebbing and flowing to the litany of bishops laying hands to bowed heads.

"I think this is something of virtually historic proportions, perhaps unprecedented," Bishop John Howe of the Diocese of Central Florida said, opening his sermon. "Charismatics are people who are known to be on fire for the Lord Jesus, and you have come tonight to put your fire into the Episcopal Church's fireplace. May you flame ever more brightly."

The metaphor was apt. How to structure charismatic worship without losing its flame was partly what had sent White seeking deeper church roots in the first place. It was a search that began four years ago and would take several emotional turns before culminating with Sunday's two-and-a-half-hour confirmation service.

"I kind of felt like Abraham when God said to him I want you to sacrifice Isaac," White told the congregation, his voice cracking with emotion. "When I went up to the mountain and placed the church on the altar, I thought God was going to send angels. But instead he continued to open doors."

How a Pentecostal church turns Episcopalian is a story that has two trends at its core: Many observers, including White, see a growing desire among nondenominational churches for deeper roots; and many also see an increasing ecumenicity in the Episcopal Church during the past two decades.

The en masse conversion was a propitious way to begin the Decade of Evangelism, Georgia's Bishop Harry Shipps observed, but the influence of evangelism here was not paramount. As Hurst put it, "They came to us without us having to lift a finger."

"All we are doing is sharing with people who have not experienced us," Shipps explained. "It's not because we have any claim to fame. We just have characteristics they are looking for and we are more ecumenical."

Flexibility and openness were deciding factors in White and his congregation choosing the Episcopal Church over other denominations, Shipps said. White also contacted the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, and Lutheran churches.

Said White: "One of the things that impressed me with the Episcopal Church is that there is not that real competitive, jealous spirit like I have seen in other groups. It's really more of a true church family."

A search for deeper roots

It was lack of acceptance for the more creedal, orthodox worship White had searched for that caused him trouble at Evangel Assemblies of God. Under his father's leadership, Evangel had grown to about 600 members and had a $3 million budget when he retired in 1988 and White assumed the pastorate.

As early as 1984, the year he was ordained into the Assemblies of God church, White, who had worked in computer programming before receiving his call to the ministry, had become fascinated with church history.

"There was a hunger in me to know about our roots. There was 2,000 years of rich heritage. What I saw was that there was a spirit-filled church back then but also a sacramental, liturgical church, too. We looked like part of it but not the whole thing."

White says he never broke with Assemblies of God doctrine, but his efforts to introduce his congregation to liturgy and more traditional church doctrine, such as apostolic succession, troubled church leaders. Another conflict, he says, was his unyielding position on integrating the church. Eight months after he became pastor, he was asked to leave.

(It was not the first time a pastor in White's family had known rejection. In a reverse situation, White's great-great-uncle was asked to leave the Missionary Baptist Church after he received the Holy Spirit. He went on to found the first Pentecostal church in Florida, White said.)

Undaunted, White and about 200 followers, mostly young and from various religious and cultural backgrounds, set up a nondenominational church in an abandoned lumber warehouse and began more earnestly to incorporate church liturgy. "Some of us call this the glory barn," White quipped. While remaining keenly charismatic, they began using the Book of Common Prayer, offering communion, and having the clergy wear vestments.

Although White said he increasingly felt like he was "bootlegging" the liturgy, the idea of actually tying into a denominational church seemed almost crazy. Or was it? White believed he would be disobeying God if he didn't explore the possibility.

Rather than risking possible hometown rejection from the rectors of Valdosta's two Episcopal churches -- Christ Church and St. Barnabas, a new mission -- White called on Hurst, an acquaintance and rector of St. Anne's in nearby Tifton. When White asked if it were possible for him to become an Episcopal priest and still keep his former congregation, Hurst was dumbfounded.

"I was shocked," Hurst recalled. "I found it hard to believe. It just never occurred to me that someone with such strong Assemblies of God background would ever want to make such a radical change instantly and that his entire congregation would come with him."

As it turned out, not everyone at Church of the King converted. Despite the gradual transition, about 20 members were too uncomfortable with the change and left the church, White said. About 100 members are too young for confirmation, and as many, more "marginal" members have not committed themselves, he added.

White himself had many questions he needed answered before he decided to follow through. He and Hurst, and later Bishop Shipps, spent hours negotiating the details. White also was given thorough physical and psychological testing.

Behind the magic there was some opposition

"The process seemed like magic to people on the outside, but it was not an easy thing," Hurst said. "There was opposition from various quarters."

Most dissent apparently came from Episcopal laity in Valdosta. A few wrote angry letters to church officials. During one service at Church of the King, Prayer Book Society leaflets were placed on the windshields of members' cars.

"At first there were lots of rumblings," recalls Dan Schert, a counselor and member of Christ Church. "But I've seen a lot of attitude changes, particularly since they've come over here to meet them. It's kind of been like cousins getting to know new cousins."

One whose attitude has changed is St. Barnabas parishioner Ed Powell. "I had a hard time," he recalled. "I couldn't understand how 500 people could do anything all at one time."

After Sunday's service, Powell said he was so enthralled by the music he hoped some of it would come to St. Barnabas.

Members of Church of the King talk of the excitement of belonging to a worldwide church, of having a fuller worship, and of looking for guidance from an institution rather than a single individual. Mostly, however, they talk about the opportunities for building bridges of understanding.

Church of the King usher and landscaper Andrew Charles saw the event quite simply as "God bringing unity to Christ."

Bruce Leonard, who describes White as another David, says a Christian by any other name is still a Christian. "As long as we're worshiping Christ, what difference is a name?" he asked.

Because of members' unfamiliarity with the Episcopal tradition, Church of the King's confirmation classes were periods of intense questioning and learning.

"They needed to know why and what this was for," White said. "I couldn't just say to them 'that's the way we've always done it."'

With a strong emphasis on evangelism, racial integration, and programs that include a 40-member choir, an orchestra, radio station, and dance group, Church of the King could soon outnumber the 500-member Christ Church. But neither White nor Bishop Shipps see any threat of competition.

"Church of the King is going to reach a different mold of people than Christ Church and St. Barnabas," Shipps said.

Now that his vision has been fulfilled, White says his church has its sights set more on healing than evangelism. "The real heartbeat of this congregation is to bring racial healing and also the healing of prejudice inside different denominations," he said. "This just puts us in a much better position to bring that about."

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