‘We Can’t Be Isolationists’

By John Zambenini

What does a rector from South Carolina’s Lowcountry have to say to a parish priest in Ireland? Quite a lot when the proclamation of the gospel is at stake, as the Rev. Charles E. “Chuck” Owens III of Church of the Cross in Bluffton, South Carolina, would have it. Owens has found an unlikely transatlantic partnership with dioceses in the Church of Ireland. Traveling to Ireland a few times a year to shore up a church he believes is in need, Owens is among a number of evangelical Anglicans reaching across geographic divides in uncertain times.

“We can’t be isolationists,” Owens told TLC. “We need our brothers and sisters no matter where they are.” Owens says his message for the Church of Ireland is “Jesus Loves you and so do we. You are not alone.” Church of the Cross’s partnership with Anglicans in Ireland, for Owens, carves out a place of solidarity from which to proclaim the gospel.

Tremors in the Anglican Communion have shaken canonical ties. Meanwhile, Owens says facility of communication and travel in the 21st century has made geographic boundaries irrelevant. The question for the church is, “Who are we spiritually aligned with?” he says. “Who you’re really in communion with is going to be based on what you believe, who holds to the truth with the fervor that you do, and defines the truth in the same way.”

Reaching across the Atlantic to like-minded believers, Owens sees Ireland as a source of mutual encouragement as well as a mission field. Church of the Cross has hired a youth minister from the Diocese of Kilmore, Elphin, and Ardagh, with which Owens has particularly close ties.

The Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence of South Carolina said Church of the Cross’s connection with Kilmore, Elphin, and Ardagh is important for South Carolina. Lawrence told TLC his diocese’s isolation within the Episcopal Church before departing highlighted the need for partnerships. South Carolina’s vision for “making biblical Anglicans in a global age” has meant investing in bonds with Tanzania, Egypt, and elsewhere, Lawrence said.

Owens’s Ireland connection began when Ken Clarke, former Bishop of Kilmore, Elphin, and Ardagh, traveled to Bluffton with Lawrence, who had met Clarke at Lambeth in 2008. Clarke told TLC that networks are now key to relationships. Ministry is no different. Not long after meeting Clarke, Owens was heading to Ireland.

And if finding overseas friendships amid a shifting cultural landscape transcends ecclesial designations, it has also accompanied change. Owens, a former school headmaster who has served as Church of the Cross’ rector since 1996, is driving to adapt the church’s proclamation for a generation unfamiliar with traditional idioms of faith.

Highlighting the scope of cultural changes, the Republic of Ireland has grabbed headlines for passing a May referendum permitting same-sex marriages. The Church of Ireland has not modified its teaching on marriage, but the referendum is regarded as a cultural bellwether for Christian leaders seeking to engage the world.

Part of the adaptation Owens says the church needs is repackaging its message without ceding ground on the authority of Scripture. In the face of mounting distrust in the institutional church, discouraged clergy, and flagging attendance, Owens says the church must realize the vitality of the gospel.

A crisis of leadership is central to the church’s struggle, Owens says: “The institutional church has served as a wet blanket over [parishioners’] faith.” He says he wants Christians to live a life of faith outside the walls of a church building. His teaching at conferences in Belfast, in the Republic, and with the evangelical New Wine movement has focused heavily on equipping leaders.

Church of the Cross, which has grown to nearly 1,800 members, is a model for Owens’s message. He attributes its growth in part to adapting worship to contemporary tastes and heavy emphasis on lay leadership, with about 80 lay ministries. Accommodating a changing world is a fine line to toe. For Church of the Cross, change has been welcome, but Owens says it has cleaved to biblical teaching.

Irish Anglicans are accustomed to fine lines. The Church of Ireland, encompassing both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, transcends a political border and exists alongside the Roman Catholic Church on the predominantly Catholic island. Still, part of Owens’s message is not shrinking from cultural boundaries.

The Rev. Ali Calvin says the vision Owens and others have cast has brought new life to the three churches she serves in Killeshandra, where Owens has visited and taught. “When you find people who share your heart and vision and have the same love for God and accept the same principles from Scripture,” Calvin said of the partnership, “you have an automatic connection.”

That connection is challenging old divisions. Her churches have taken small steps to overcome barriers with Catholics in Killeshandra. “We share the desire to see the Holy Spirit move amongst his people, to see walls broken down,” she said.

Calvin, a former secondary school teacher, has been a priest for six years in the Diocese of Kilmore, Elphin, and Ardagh. Chapel of the Cross’s lay leadership model has encouraged her congregations, she says. She travelled with a team from Killeshandra to Bluffton. “It was wonderful for us, from rural churches in Ireland, to hear Chuck’s story and to hear his experience going from a small church that was dying and then growing,” she said.

Whatever comes of his far-flung friendships, Owens’s emphasis on adapting the church to meet culture has found traction. Rev. Greg McMullin of St. Mary and St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, also worked with Owens. McMullin says there is renewed vigor in his church. “[We] can speak in a language relevant to the culture without becoming molded by the culture,” McMullin said, though change brings challenges. “I think there’s a real danger that in attempts to be relevant we embrace the direction of the current culture, and I think that’s a huge mistake.”

What is needed for accommodation of cultural change to ultimately succeed remains to be seen. In the meantime Calvin’s parishioners have come to see themselves as having a role to play in the church. “Initially it was just a mindset change,” Calvin says. Now, “many of them have moved into a deeper relationship with God.”

Image of the Rev. Chuck Owens from the website of Church of the Cross, Bluffton, South Carolina

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