CAPE MAY – Tradition means different things to different people. Some view it as stifling and constraining, while others find comfort and predictability in structure.
What if the structure changes? How can tradition be relevant in living faith?
The Episcopal Church of America traces its roots to the American Revolution’s aftermath, when everything was different in the new republic. No longer subjects of Great Britain, members of the Anglican Church found themselves cut off from the motherland.
Rev. Alan Leonard, the rector of the Episcopal Church of the Advent, in Cape May, explained this overlooked time during a phone interview Sept. 16.
According to Leonard, the former colonists had to reorganize after the American victory at Yorktown, Virginia. Many priests fled during the war, leaving congregations torn between a desire for greater political liberty and remaining loyal to King George III.
“(The) American Revolution left the Anglican parishes shattered, stripped of most of their financial support, weakened by the flight of many clergy and thousands of members, with a number of buildings destroyed and property lost,” Powell Mills Dawley wrote, in his book, “Our Christian Heritage.” Dawley was a theology professor and wrote several books in the early to the mid-20th century.
In 1784, the Episcopal Church of America was born. The first bishops still traveled to England to be consecrated by the archbishop of Canterbury, but the practice quickly fell out of favor and practicality.
According to Episcopal records, an assembly gathered, in Philadelphia, in 1789, to unify all members. The leaders would be elected democratically instead of appointed.
As America expanded, many bishops and priests pushed westward, establishing schools and missions as they went.
“We are halfway between Roman Catholic and Protestant,” Leonard said. The word “Episcopal” comes from the Greek “epískopos,” meaning “watchman” or “overseer.” Over time, the Latin translation became the English word “bishop.”
Leonard explained that Episcopalians embrace Protestant, or Reformed, doctrine while retaining Catholic tenants. For example, Episcopalians believe that Jesus Christ is present in the elements of the Holy Eucharist (communion) and practice infant baptism. Liturgies guide worship and The Book of Common Prayer is also used. Priests are allowed to marry, differing from Catholic teaching.
“Salvation is through Jesus Christ,” Leonard said. Beliefs are gleaned from the Bible, traditions of the early church fathers and mothers, and also reason – the human ability to think and decide what one believes.
Tradition leads back to the reign of King Henry VIII (1509-1547), who wished to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn. Henry’s queen had not given him a son, and he was desperate for an heir to secure the Tudor line.
When Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry an annulment, he decided to break with the Roman Church. Thus, the Anglican Church came into existence and remains the state church of Great Britain.
According to Leonard, tourists who flocked to Cape May during the summer desired their own house of worship, in 1863. Cape May County was predominately Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Quaker at the time. Families were not just escaping the summer heat but also the tumult of the Civil War.
A summer chapel was built at the corner of Washington and Franklin streets, completed in 1870, and was named St. John’s Chapel. The chapel, according to Leonard, was used only in the summer.
The number of year-round congregants grew and soon a second parish was formed, called the Episcopal Church of the Advent. Members rented the Presbyterian Church, now the Cape May Stage, for several years. However, both congregations had “financial struggles,” according to Leonard. The Great Depression impacted Cape May and, in 1936, both congregations merged, creating the Episcopal Church of the Advent / St. John’s Chapel. The summer chapel became the official church building, in 1953.
When asked how tradition could survive and remain viable during the present, Leonard said, “Heritage and Scripture inform our present. What we believe impacts the world today.”
Leonard is no stranger to change and the problems of today. He served as an army chaplain, including a 15-month tour in Baghdad, and has ministered in several locations.
Before coming to Cape May, in 2019, Leonard and his wife, Brenda, ministered in Spartanburg, South Carolina, for 13 years.
“We were ready for a change,” Leonard said. “South Jersey is lovely.”
The Episcopal Church, still connected to its Anglican roots, continues to seek positive change while confessing the mistakes of the past, i.e., slavery and treatment of women. Leonard said he is committed to social justice, condemning violence, and following the teachings of Jesus.
“We are all made in the image of God,” Leonard concluded.
Faith Matters is an ongoing series exploring the connection between individuals and their faith, impacting their families, community, and beyond. Those with a story of faith to share should contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.