All Saints’ Episcopal Community was formed several years ago in Franklin, North Carolina when the two churches of St. Agnes and St. Cyprian, both founded by my great-grandfather, united for common worship and mission. St. Agnes was founded first in the heart of town. It's the church where my paternal grandparents were married, and where my father was baptized and grew up. Those were the sad days of segregation, however, and when the Rev. John Deal realized that there was no Episcopal congregation for people of color - blacks and Native Americans (mostly Cherokee) - he founded St. Cyprian’s. When it became apparent that neither parish could sustain a full-time priest, the process of deciding whether or not to align the two congregations began. (St. Cyprian's had begun the process of intentional integration some years prior.) Several years ago a decision was reached and a new priest was called to serve both parishes. ASEC alternates its weekly liturgies between the two churches.
Merging two congregations is not as easy as it might sound. Many struggling parishes will vote to close rather than combine with another, even when such a partnership might give them a chance at new life. Communal identity is important; our buildings, our liturgical style and corporate piety, as well as our common memory, are all built into our vast sense of parochial “selfhood”. When churches are physically close enough to make such a merger feasible, their very proximity is often the result of two congregations in the same denomination not only wanting and expecting different things, but up until recently having sufficient resources to get them. I’m sure the process that resulted in the formation of All Saints Episcopal Community was thoughtful and prayerful, but also fraught with fear, reluctance, and probably some anger. It was no doubt very hard work. There was change, and with that change did come death of a sort. But it was the kind of death that leads to resurrection. Some of the members I spoke with still identify themselves as “Agnes” or “Cyprian”, but not in a way that sounded defensive, proud, or resentful. They are clearly committed to being Christ's hands and heart in this southern mountain town.