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Groton - Six years after the congregation declared itself unable to fully participate in The Episcopal Church, the parishioners and clergy of the Bishop Seabury Anglican Church held their last service in their building on Sunday.
The service was emotional as parishioners frequently broke out in tears. They hugged often and held hands. The majority of the Prayers of the People portion of the worship focused on the congregation's departing and the unknown challenges that lie ahead.
"The sights, the sounds and the smell of this building remind me of home," April Head said aloud, kneeling behind a pew. "This place has been a constant in my life, but I've learned that there are constants in life and one of them is change. Lord, where you go we will go. Prepare a new home for us, Father, keep us as a family."
Beginning Aug. 12, services will be held at the Groton Inn and Suites until a more permanent home for the congregation can be found.
"I'll tell you one thing," the Rev. Ronald S. Gauss told his parish Sunday morning, "Don't start crying until I'm through because if you do, I'll never get through this."
Standing from the pulpit, Gauss, who has been with Bishop Seabury for more than 30 years, told his parish that the location of a church service has never diminished the power of the Lord.
"I've held services on top of a Jeep covered in mud and it was just as valid as it is when I stand up here," Gauss said. "It's not a building that is the life and the heart of Jesus Christ. The life doesn't end here. This is just a relocation. Life hasn't ended, it's just changed. I don't have time to worry about being angry. This is what was decided, but for some reason I don't understand yet, we are going out."
The legal battle over the church, its contents, and the 6.5-acre church site on North Road began in 2007 when Gauss led his parish away from diocesan supervision because it opposed the Episcopal Church's ordination in 2003 of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire and the election of a woman as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. in 2006.
The global Anglican Communion, which included the American Episcopal church, has been divided by those issues and others for more than an decade.
Bishop Seabury parishioners believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible and in 2007 affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America to remove the parish from the jurisdiction of the American Episcopal church and put it under the oversight of a Nigerian bishop.
After the decision was made to lead the church away from diocesan supervision, the church was one of six Connecticut parishes that filed a federal lawsuit against the bishop at the time, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Smith. The six churches sought several million dollars in damages for the alleged violation of their civil and property rights after they tried to break away from Smith's authority when he supported the election of the gay bishop.
In 2010, a state Superior Court judge ruled that the Connecticut diocese owns the 135-year-old church site and its contents. The judge ordered Gauss and his parishioners to give up the property but allowed them to remain in the church while they appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.
Last year, the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the church and denied a request from the parish to reconsider. In March, Gauss asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the lower court ruling that the church and all of its property must be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese in Connecticut.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the state Supreme Court ruling in June.
Sunday's service ended with the congregation forming a circle around the sanctuary and praying over the space. A bagpiper led the congregation out of the sanctuary and into the parking lot where parishioners got into their cars and drove to the Groton Inn and Suites to pray in a circle in the parking lot.
"It's a sad day, of course, but it's also exciting because change will do us good," said Gerald Chadwick, a Ledyard resident and parishioner since 1980. "We get complacent in a building and to have this comfort removed from us will put us in a different frame of mind. We've lost our comfort and that is scary, but this will bring more life into us."
Chadwick's wife, Ginny, said that Gauss taught the parish "years and years and years ago that the church isn't the building."
"After all those years, now we've got to live it," she said. "God doesn't close a door without opening a window."