A most ecumenical parting of ways

In writing a brief profile of newly approved federal judge Priscilla Owen, David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times touched on her experience at St. Barnabas the Encourager Evangelical Covenant Church:

In more recent years, Ms. Owen also became much more religious, her sister said. Republicans have lauded her role as a founding member of St. Barnabas Church, a theologically conservative congregation in Austin where she still teaches Sunday school. "On any given Sunday, you can find Justice Owen hopping on one leg, reading stories," Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said last week.

Democrats have criticized an allusion to religion in an opinion she wrote arguing against exempting a teenager seeking an abortion from the state's parental notification law. The law's requirement of an "informed" decision, Ms. Owen argued, included an understanding "that some women have experienced severe remorse and regret" and consideration "that there are philosophic, social, moral and religious arguments" about abortion, as well.

Ms. Owen's defenders argue that she was interpreting an ambiguous law in a way consistent with its legislative history and that courts later cleared up its meaning. And her pastor, the Rev. Jeff Black, said she would never impose her religious views in a court. "If it was a believer who came to her and said, 'What should I do?' then she would say, 'Here is what the Scripture says,'" Mr. Black said. "But in a court of law, she would never do that."

Hold the phone: St. Barnabas the Encourager Evangelical Covenant Church? As the name suggests, this congregation did not begin its life within the Evangelical Covenant fold.

St. Barnabas is a religion writer's dream of a feature story with eclectic details. Black built the congregation -- as a mission of the Episcopal Church -- through meetings of the Alpha Course. But then along came the General Convention of 2003, which took the Episcopal Church in a decidedly more liberal direction on homosexuality, and St. Barnabas became one of several congregations to break from its diocese and the denomination.

As Eileen Flynn wrote in the Austin American-Statesman in late March, St. Barnabas is now a former Episcopal parish and a new member of an evangelical Protestant denomination meeting in the activity center of St. William's Roman Catholic Church:

Black and St. William's pastor, the Rev. Joel McNeil, found that they shared the same biblical view of homosexuality.

McNeil said when he heard about St. Barnabas last year, he was "impressed with the integrity of the pastor and the congregation" for determining they could not in good conscience remain in the Episcopal Church.

"There's a lot of pressure, it seems, to make the church like the world rather than evangelizing the world," McNeil said. "I admire that they have resisted those pressures and have decided to maintain the traditional Christian belief."

Word of McNeil's support traveled to Black via a St. William's parishioner visiting St. Barnabas as a photo copier salesman.

The two priests started talking and discovered they could help each other.

Founded in 1997, St. Barnabas congregants had been worshipping in rented North Austin office space and wanted a permanent home. St. William's was building a church near its present location on McNeil Road and needed to sell a 6½-acre parcel and parish center.

And it just so happened that Black's mother was the librarian at McNeil's junior high school in Rome, N.Y., in the early 1970s.

Meanwhile, the roughly 250 St. Barnabas members had decided they wanted to officially join the Chicago-based Evangelical Covenant Church, an ecumenical fellowship of churches founded by Swedish immigrants in 1885, after several months of an informal association.

The covenant offered to buy the St. William's property and closed on the $1.7 million sale with the Catholic Diocese on Friday. Black said his congregation expects to invest $400,000 in improvements to the property, including an additional building for offices and classrooms.

The two congregations will share the parish center over the next year until St. William's facility is complete.

The details are too intricate for a brief profile of Priscilla Owen, but they're fascinating nonetheless -- especially amid the now-standard accusation that any congregation breaking away from the Episcopal Church is guilty of Donatism and doomed to a lifetime of schism.

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