By Shawn McCain Tirres
On July 25, 2023, our parish voted to disaffiliate from the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and pursue affiliation with the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the Diocese of Texas. As big of a deal as this may seem, for those who know our parish, the real headline is far more interesting.
When we planted this parish in 2015, we envisioned a community that could extend the welcome of God to our neighbors in South Austin. “Life Together in the Goodness of God” became how we described this vision, but it was more than a tagline for the website; it was the joyful yet risky posture we took with God to express his radical hospitality for the sake of our neighbors. Early on, we began to run into the complicated and beautiful reality that this vision brings.
Eight years later, it also led us to a place of misalignment with the ACNA that many in our parish were unaware of and that we needed to discuss, especially regarding the treatment of women, people of color, and sexual minorities. And, while within contemporary Anglican politics there’s a tendency to fixate on matters of sexuality (important as they are), I want to resist this oversexualized reductionism. Our concerns include sexual minorities, but range far wider. Most of the sexualization of the question of our affiliation has come from outside our parish, not within.
For much of our parish life, we were comfortable and supported under Bishop Todd Hunter in the Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). We had grown and flourished under his care and with the many colleagues who shared our convictions. However, as the rector, I could see and feel the misalignment with the ACNA as a whole mounting in ways that concerned the future of our parish. Simply put, it became clear that more would have to change for our parish to remain in the ACNA than if we were to find a new ecclesial home.
Over recent years, I think it is fair to say that a lot has changed: our parish, the ACNA, and the world we’re living in. If changed isn’t the right word, then maybe things were clarified or revealed about the commitments and values held. During the pandemic years, our parish’s focus on the good news of the kingdom matured our conviction to engage social issues, injustices, racism, inequalities, and discrimination. These issues drove us to take Jesus’ announcement in Luke 4 and the Sermon on the Mount more seriously. Our clergy more clearly recognized God’s special concern for the poor, marginalized, excluded, and vulnerable.
As we all know, during that time, there were plenty of opportunities to focus locally and discern how we might participate in God’s work in these spaces. We held book studies on racism and protested for Black Lives Matter in the streets of South Austin; we named white supremacy, condemned gun violence, especially after El Paso and Uvalde, talked about how the church suffers without women in every level of church leadership, and expressed the unqualified welcome of God to everyone, including sexual minorities. We knew that the gospel was so concerned with rescuing humanity from sin and death that reckoning with these real-world issues mattered to God, even when it made people uncomfortable.
Of course, this was not easy work and sometimes costly. A few people left our church over time, but most parishioners continued walking with us. There were also voices in our parish who opened our eyes to see what we would never have seen without their help. Black and brown leaders in our church pointed us in the right direction and applauded the risks we took. Women leaders and clergy shared their experiences of exclusion and harm in male-centric church cultures. Sexual minorities shared what it was like to be them and challenged overly simplistic assumptions about sexuality. It was humbling to be mentored by the sisters and brothers who had disproportionately borne these issues’ costs. But like living sacraments, these beloved people were a means of grace to me. I found Jesus among them in a special way, present and at work, which meant that if we were to join him in that work, we had to keep going.
Over time, these convictions made our community publicly problematic to others in the ACNA. I wouldn’t typically mind being “that church,” but it became clear that continuing to bear this misalignment was not sustainable. This was a difficult realization, especially because so many of my friends and colleagues in the ACNA were doing this hard work, which we shared as well. But after many pastoral conversations with Bishop Todd, it became clear that our parish was no longer well served under the leadership of the ACNA.
With the kind of wisdom and understanding that has characterized his mentorship in my life and his episcopacy, Todd granted our church two months to discern these concerns together and bring to vote a decision to remain or move on. Although two months was a short time, we both agreed on the wisdom of addressing this openly and briefly for the sake of our community. And I’m glad we did because it was intense and exhausting.
Our clergy compiled a list of concerns, mostly on the ACNA’s treatment of racial and sexual minorities, women, and its handling of the sexual abuse investigation in the upper Midwest, that I eventually presented to our vestry. Our vestry discussed and prayed through these issues before approving that we bring them to the church in a series of meetings. We then held several parishwide closed-door listening sessions, where we listened to the concerns and questions of our people, prayed together, and discerned. We also held midweek evening prayer gatherings, visited and prayed with small groups, and prayed with our families. The whole season was immersed in prayer and relationships.
We weighed our leaders’ and clergy’s concerns at our weekly church meetings. As we discerned the question of our affiliation, some pointed out that a change might be the exchange of one set of problems for another: “The grass is brown on both sides.” In response, I had a clarifying personal thought: “Not for everyone, especially for women, people of color, and sexual minorities in this room.” I realized that the question was not whether we could find a greener bit of grass, but in which patch of grass we could best do the work into which Jesus is inviting us.
These sessions were incredibly vulnerable and loving. I don’t take for granted how courageous and honest our parish was together. The bond of love we had for one another created a space for real dialogue. Sisters and brothers challenged each other and expressed worry, fear, and disagreement — all while honoring and caring for those among us who felt the most at risk. Even in the difficult disagreements, we resisted an “us vs. them” mentality because this community was grounded in something deeper.
We also had to resist external pressures to frame our question with an oversexualized view of orthodoxy. Instead, we focused on the question “How can we most authentically be the parish God has formed us to be, doing the work to which God calls us here?” The holiest moments were when people of color, women, teenagers, and sexual minorities trusted us enough to stand and bear witness, and they were heard and received by our community in love, including by those who held different theological convictions. They didn’t know it, but they were preaching the gospel to us, and we needed to hear it from them.
When the vestry conducted the membership vote, we reached a quorum and majority within a day. The vote was over 80 percent in favor of disaffiliation from the ACNA and pursuing affiliation with the Episcopal Church. It is a bittersweet decision because our ecclesial relationship has changed with many dear friends and colleagues. It is also exciting to look forward to joining a community of Episcopalians in the Diocese of Texas.
But again, the real headline isn’t about denominational politics. It is about a local parish trusting God and each other enough to do the risky work of discernment on some of the most controversial issues facing the church today. For who God has made our local parish to be, for the people we have in our care, for the convictions of the gospel and the kingdom that we share, and for the ways we feel called to embody the gospel for the benefit of our South Austin neighborhood — this tough season brought clarity about who God has formed us to be as a community. Now “Life Together in the Goodness of God” takes on a deeper meaning of how God walked with us as we walked together through a challenging time.
The Rev. Dr. Shawn McCain Tirres is the founding rector of Resurrection South Austin in Texas.