By Jeff Brumley
“….A Jacksonville priest who led thousands from the Episcopal Church has been elected the first bishop of a new diocese that will oversee about 5,000 conservative Anglicans in North Florida and South Georgia. The Rev. Neil Lebhar was elected Saturday by clergy and lay leaders in what will be called the Gulf Atlantic Diocese of the Anglican Church in North America.
The Anglican Church in North America itself is a new American denomination, having been formed in June largely by those who left the Episcopal Church after an openly gay priest became bishop in New Hampshire in 2003. Lebhar said he's eager to lead but also glad the position has a seven-year term limit.
"I think the greatest impact for the kingdom takes place through the ministry of local Christian communities," Lebhar said. "So my heart has been, and always will be, for the parish." Lebhar was elected by the new diocese's clergy and lay leaders, who chose him over the Rev. Jim Hobby of Thomasville, Ga….”
My congratulations to the Rev. Neil Lehbar on his election to the episcopate. He is by all accounts a committed Christian and an accomplished clergyman. For the Episcopal diocese of Florida and the Anglican family of Christians in the region, it adds a new page to a rather complicated history.
A few weeks ago, at the ordination of a friend, two very dear people tried to explain to a mutual acquaintance about their church affiliation. One proudly stated she was an Anglican, the other with a confused look in her face said, “…so am I , aren’t you Episcopalian? Episcopalians have always been Anglican!...” . It was an awkward moment between two very fine ladies who now find themselves on what seem opposite sides of the fence.
For me, as a new Episcopalian, the divide here is a bit difficult to understand. I absolutely agree with bishop elect Lebhar in his conviction that; “…the greatest impact for the kingdom takes place in the local Christian community…”. It was in part that conviction that led me and others into the diocese of Florida, despite the controversies within the Episcopal Church.
So far, it has not been my impression that this local expression of the church has been a hotbed of liberalism! There are dedicated clergy and lay leaders, inspiring and boring preachers, faithful parishioners, Christmas and Easter folks, the very holy as well sinners in need of love and redemption, Charismatics, Evangelicals, the frozen chosen, a love of Christ, the Church and sacraments, apathy and fervor…no different from any other church I have had the privilege of attending! I have encountered a diversity of political ideologies and opinions on a host of topics, but overall, around here, there seems to be very little difference between my Episcopalian friends, and the new non-Episcopalian Anglicans.
Though others see it differently, to me, it feels like one of those family disagreements that come to hurtful division and separation; a sad affair! There are friendships that have been strained, bonds broken and relationships long in the making been put to the test; not a good scenario in our own families, much less the family of God!
I would hope that Bishop elect Lebhar, now charged to guard the unity of the church, would be a voice for reconciliation and understanding among disaffected Christians in this diocese! After all, beyond denominations and ideologies, past conflicts and hurts, we are inescapably bound to one another if we are Christians. We have been baptized into one body, have been given to drink of the same Spirit, and are members of the body of Christ!
As for my Anglican and Episcopalian friends, they seemed to get past the moment! The evening saw them “eat of the same bread…drink of the same cup” and later share stories over coffee and flan! Hope springs eternal….