Last Rites: St. David’s Episcopal Church Closes Its Doors

St. David's sanctuaryIt was a funeral for a friend.

There were scenes of joy as those who had been away for years, even decades, returned and were greeted with hugs and laughter. And there were tears, too, for the loss, not of a person but of a place and the fellowship that lived there.

St. David’s Episcopal Church ended its 65-year presence in Lakeland with an emotional farewell service on Sunday.

The congregation is selling its property to a new Southern Baptist church and disbanding. The church’s rector, the Rev. Rob Moses, and many of the members of St. David’s are joining St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the far south side of Lakeland.

Just as at a funeral, people brought food, which was shared in the church’s narthex as congregants gathered before and after the final service. And people brought their photographs, their scrapbooks and their newspaper clippings, all on display to bring back fond memories of better times, eliciting comments of “I remember that.”

Deacon Joan Verret and Rector Robert Moses, left photo; Canon Tim Nunez, right photo

In the service, white-vested priests, deacons and vergers led a service that although solemn and at times frank about the church’s past troubles, nevertheless struck a note of hope. Moses thanked a list of people – choir members, staff, volunteers and lay leaders – for their contributions over the years. He also noted he had served as an Episcopal priest solely at St. David’s, first as assistant rector and then as rector, and thanked the congregation, which responded with a standing ovation.

The valedictory sermon was delivered by the Rev. Tim Nunez, canon – or assistant – to Bishop Gregory Brewer of the Diocese of Central Florida. Nunez, a native of Lakeland, grew up in St. David’s and was a lay leader in the church before turning to the priesthood. He reminded the church of its illustrious past, its once-grand worship services and outreach in the community and acknowledged the grief and anger that accompanied its closing.

“We ask each other, ‘How did this happen?’ Despite our best intentions, poor leadership, poor decisions and a significant amount of squandering of extraordinary resources took place over the last 42 years,” he said. “Many will carry deep regret to lay at the altar today, and much forgiveness is required of ourselves and others.”

Nunez encouraged the congregation to seek God’s consolation and look to the future.

“St. David’s was never intended to be an entity unto itself,” he said. “I pray God will bind up all our wounds as we lift our eyes to him. He knows our pain. … Pain and sorrow will not have the last say.”

Difficulties

The once-dynamic church experienced a slow decline over the past 40 years, an example of the fate that has befallen thousands of other churches in the so-called mainline Protestant tradition that includes the Episcopal Church, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

At one time, St. David’s was one of the premier churches in Lakeland, with 1,200 members and many influential people on its roster, according to those who remember those days. The church was founded in 1953 and moved to its site on Edgewood Drive near Florida Avenue in 1967, building an unusual, sanctuary-in-the-round that was modeled on a fourth-century Roman church.

“It was a who’s who of Lakeland,” said Mills Fleming, a lawyer in Savannah, Ga., whose father, the Rev. Peter Fleming, was rector of St. David’s from 1961 to 1976. “Lois Harrison, Wogie Badcock, Homer Hooks – they were all members. It was an incredibly vibrant parish.”

Photos by David Dickey Jr.

Internal disputes, theological controversies in the denomination and a trend in society away from traditional religious beliefs all took their toll. St. David’s went through difficulties about five years ago when its rector left amid acrimony, and Moses said the church suffered a 20 percent loss in average worship attendance. However, he said attendance had remained steady at about 125 people each week since then and that the church’s closing was due primarily to the inability to maintain the buildings and grounds.

“We were spending too much of our offerings on upkeep. We weren’t able to conduct outreach in the community the way we should,” he said.

Some members of the church echoed Nunez’s remark about failed leadership. Frances Schroeter Henry, who said she has been a member of St. David’s since “the first spade of dirt” was turned, wore a black dress as if attending a funeral.

“Our problems were man-made. We had financial problems we couldn’t solve,” she said. But she added, “It gives me pleasure to know that another church bought our property. In heaven, there will be no denominations.”

Brannen Padgett Redemption Church

The site of St. David’s will be purchased for $1.85 million by Redemption Church, which was begun in 2016 by Brannen Padgett, the church’s lead pastor. Padgett said Redemption started with 100 members and has more than doubled since then. It has been holding services at the RP Funding Center.

“We’ve had some growing pains. To have a unique space to call our own is critical for our development,” he said.

Padgett said the purchase has gone smoothly and praised the leadership of St. David’s for its determination that another church should have the property. Like many new congregations, Redemption has an informal worship style with contemporary music. He also intimated that Redemption would make some alterations to the sanctuary, including removing the pews and replacing them with chairs.

Church trends

St. David’s is at least the third church from the mainline Protestant tradition to close in the central Lakeland area in the past dozen years. In 2016, Westminster Presbyterian Church, located at 730 S. Florida Ave., closed and sold its building to a new Pentecostal congregation, Grace City Church, which has grown so rapidly it will soon start holding worship services at a second location.

Mainline churches generally hold more liberal theological views on biblical interpretation, allowing women in pastoral and church leadership roles, advocating for social justice causes and welcoming gays and lesbians as members or – in some cases – as leaders. More conservative traditions, such as evangelical and Pentecostal Protestants, have blamed the nationwide decline of mainline churches on their liberal views.

Mark Chaves

That decline is “a real thing” and has been well-documented, said Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity at Duke University. He pointed to the General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Data from the survey show that Americans who identify themselves as mainline Protestant went from 29 percent in 1972 to 10 percent in 2016. During that same period, evangelical Protestants were 18 percent of Americans in 1972, peaked at 30 percent in 1993 and declined to 24 percent in 2016.

“(Evangelical churches) are holding their own, but they haven’t increased. They have more kids than the mainline churches and they’re better at hanging on to them,” Chaves said.

However, the major trend over the past 45 years, he said, is the steady growth of Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition – the “nones.” According to the General Social Survey, this group has risen from 5 percent in 1972 to 22 percent in 2016, and the rate of disaffiliation is highest among 18-to-30-year olds. Chaves said the trend is affecting all religious groups.

“In every group, the trend is in that direction. This is a period of slow decline in traditional religious belief,” he said.

The South Florida Baptist Association, which includes Redemption Church and 77 others in the western half of Polk County, has started an average of two churches per year over the past five years, said Richard Williamson, director of missions for the association. He declined to say that theology was a factor in the closings of St. David’s and Westminster.

“We’re certainly seeing more churches closing their doors across denominations. Each case is unique. Some smaller congregations struggle to hold on, and some fail to change with the community,” he said.

Moses admitted that St. David’s more liberal theology might have hindered its growth in a conservative place like Polk County.

“The people we appeal to are usually turned off by church, or they’re not ready to go back,” he said.

Memories

After the service, one of the vergers, Meredith Prokuski, who was baptized in the church as an infant and has belonged there ever since, was emotional.

Prokuski, center David Dickey Jr.

“For all the sadness today, there was a lot of joy seeing people I grew up with. But seeing people who were role models for me being emotional was pretty tough,” she said.

Like many of St. David’s congregants, she will join the exodus to St. Stephen’s.

“The folks there have been just wonderful, letting us know they are there for us. But it’s going to take awhile. God has some wonderful things in store for us. We just have to be willing to let it happen,” she said.

Moses said that it is the Christian belief that death is faced with hope.

“In the Christian rites of burial, we end with the resurrection,” he said. “That’s where we are.”