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St. Stephen's, Heathsville, VA, celebrate their homecoming

On Saturday, April 14, the Episcopal congregation of St. Stephen Episcopal Church in Heathsville, VA, along with friends, supporters, and diocesan clergy and staff, joyously celebrated their homecoming to their historic church building with a Eucharist and a lavish potluck luncheon and reception.

On January 10, 2012, the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled that the building belonged to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and must be returned.

The glad alleluias of the opening hymn brought tears to the eyes of all present as the processional began. When the Rev. Lucia Lloyd turned at the front of the church and said, "Alleluia, Christ is Risen!" the enthusiastic response of "The Lord is Risen, indeed!" almost blew her hair back.

The liturgy included a Litany for Dayspring, which prayed, in part, "For those that are returning to their church homes; those that are moving to new church homes; and those that are discerning where you are calling them to be, that they may experience the goodness of freedom after their exile; that they may remain ever faithful to the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ; that they may grow in God's love."

Dayspring "is the integrated effort to discern and implement vision and strategy in response to the return of Episcopal properties to the mission of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia. It is an opportunity for the entire Diocese to join together in discerning the work of the Holy Spirit as we examine how to best use our resources for the ministry of the Church. Key to this endeavor, Bishop Johnston has explained, will be open hearts, open minds, patience, constant prayer and a spirit of graciousness." For more information, go to http://www.thediocese.net/dayspring/

The sermon was based on the passage from the Book of Ruth 1:16-17:

But Ruth said,
"Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!"

See the Rev. Lloyd's entire sermon HERE.

At the end of the Eucharist, people were invited to introduce themselves and to state their connection with St. Stephen's. On a table at the front of the church people had placed photos of those Episcopalians who had died during the five years the Episcopalians were away from the building so that they could be seen and remembered during the homecoming celebration. Many people mentioned these absent loved ones during their introductions.

Visitors included several people from the Heathsville United Methodist Church, the congregation that took them in when they were first forced to leave their building. The Methodist minister assisted at the altar.

There were many clergy and laity from other parishes in the area as well as from Falls Church and Epiphany, congregations who have also been worshiping outside their churches as they await the resolution of litigation; and Cindi Bartol, president of the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Virginia.

Other visitors included the Rev. Celia Ellery, the rector of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in San Angelo in the Diocese of Northwest Texas, which is also worshiping in alternate space while they await an end to litigation; and Margaret Mieuli and Katie Sherrod of the Diocese of Fort Worth.

Several gifts also were given, including an Episcopal Shield, a Canterbury Cross, and a cross made from two different kinds of Texas wood. The gift from Fort Worth was a framed piece of calligraphy of Mark 9:23 that said, "Believe. All things are possible to those who believe."

The January 10 Court ruling held that the seven congregations in which the majority of members and clergy left the Episcopal Church in 2006 and 2007 to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) must return all property to the bishop of Virginia by April 30, 2012.

But because the Rev. Lloyd and many members of St. Stephen's continuing congregation had worked diligently to build collegial relations with the CANA congregation occupying their building, they were able to agree to an earlier date for the move. The transition happened in a hectic but cordial manner.

On the morning of the Friday before Palm Sunday, the Episcopalians began moving in the items they were going to need immediately. The rector of the CANA congregation made a special trip to put the keys to the church, the secretary's office and her office in the Rev. Lloyd's hand.

One of the first things they did was to put their sign back up and attach the Episcopal flag to it. The Rev. Lloyd moved her books, plants, photos, and other framed items into the rector's office while others took care of other spaces. Members brought photos from their time away and had them on the walls almost immediately to make the space their own. Parishioners added the Rev. Lloyd's photo to the lengthy line of photos of male rectors in the hallway. Her photo, showing her standing in a bright fuchsia coat in the outdoor worship area of the rented space used by the Episcopalians while away from the building, stood out among the more somber black and white photos.

The church building, Parish Hall, rectory and the house used for the parish thrift store were clean and in good shape. All items were present and well cared for. The CANA Youth Group left notes in several places around the church wishing the Episcopalians well.

Most of the items the Episcopalians had acquired for use in their rented space ‒ a privately owned home that came to be known as Chilton Chapel ‒ will now be put into a classroom that will become the Chilton Chapel, so that this piece of their history will remain part of their worship lives.

Then, after all Friday's busyness, as evening approached, the Episcopalians came quietly into the church building for a time of silent prayer and an opportunity to bring to God the incredible range of emotions evoked by the return. Then they had Evening Prayer with prayers appropriate to the occasion followed by a potluck so they could gather again as a family in the Parish Hall.

For Episcopalians who had prayed and hoped and waited for this day for 1,930 days, this event eased the transition to an already busy Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter in their historic home.

All that emotion burst forth again for many during the homecoming. People shared stories, hugged, cried, laughed and then started the process all over again.

Everyone was offered a remembrance of the day in the form of a votive candleholder engraved with a drawing of the church building. It was a small reminder that after the darkest night, joy always comes in the morning.







Click here for more photographs.