Church Planting in Covidtide: Moral Courage and Sacramental Witness, Part II

Part I of this story reported on efforts of the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) to double its size, as part of its REC 100 initiative unveiled in 2017, and discussed the Covidtide experience of two new REC churches. Within Anglicanism, the REC has a similar theology and liturgy to the Continuing Anglican churches; Part II thus looks at the church planting experience of some Continuing Anglicans, and concludes with some overall conclusions on church planting and evangelism during Covidtide.

The Continuing Anglican movement was formed in response to theological innovations of the Episcopal Church in the 1970s, and briefly formed a single nationwide jurisdiction in 1978 that soon fractured into multiple jurisdictions, divided more by personalities than doctrine or churchmanship.[1] Since a joint synod in 2017, four of the largest of these Continuing Anglican jurisdictions (dubbed the “G-4”) have been working towards full reunification.[2] At their second Joint Synod in January 2020, the G-4 churches unveiled Continuing Forward, its new church planting and growth initiative led by representatives of each of the four jurisdictions.[3]

The two churches mentioned here happen to be both in the Anglican Catholic Church (ACC), one of the G-4 members. A key voice for a new approach to evangelism in the ACC has been Fr. Stephen Scarlett, since 1986 the rector of St. Matthew’s in Newport Beach, California. As with his counterpart Bp. Ray Sutton of the REC, Bp. Scarlett has long emphasized a relational model to evangelism — as in a 2011 speech:

We must begin to ask questions like what is our mission and ministry in this community? How will we go about the business of asking people to come? How will we go about welcoming them when they do? …

Evangelism must be rooted in personal invitation. The key to any evangelistic endeavor is invitation. You must invite people to come to your church. … You encounter God at your church. Why wouldn’t someone you know also find God there? (If you don’t encounter God at your church, the first step is to remedy that). Once church members become willing and prayerful about inviting people, God will provide opportunities.[4]

In his address at the 2020 G-4 Joint Synod, Bp. Scarlett called for “interior spiritual formation leading to outward-oriented mission … [which] is focused on hospitality and building relationships.”[5]

Part I reported the story of the two REC churches: Christ the King (Georgia) and St. Mark the Evangelist (Texas). Here, Part II reports on two Continuing Anglican churches: St. Thomas the Apostle (California) and Trinity Anglican (Indiana).

California: St. Thomas the Apostle

If Texas provided a relatively friendly environment for churches during the pandemic, California offered the most hostile. Of the seven church plaintiffs that had government restrictions on religious worship overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States, five were from California. In early 2021, California remained the only state with a complete ban on indoor worship — as the Supreme Court noted in February 2021 when it overturned that ban.[6] With a pattern of ad hoc closing, opening, closing, (not) opening, the ritual of following daily changes to regulations — promoted under the Orwellian title “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” — was daunting for established churches, let alone new ones.

However, the possibility of a second coronavirus emerging from China[7] — let alone government lockdowns of state churches — was on no one’s mind when Fr. Kevin Craik moved back home with his family to Orange County, California, in hopes of growing a small group into a church plant.

His return was the outcome of ongoing discussions with Bp. Scarlett, rector of the largest and most successful Continuing Anglican church in Southern California.[8] The church had long been interested in planting a mission in Fullerton, where it had a number of young families among its existing members. The hope was to make a thriving mission combining both existing and new members, those who did not want to make a 25-mile drive south to Newport that could take 30-60 minutes depending on traffic.

Since 2016, Bp. Scarlett had advocated that future Anglican evangelism and mission in his diocese must build upon an ascetical remnant committed to observing the Daily Office and other aspects of what Martin Thornton defined as a Rule of life.[9] Thus, in May 2017 he encouraged three church members, already living by Rule, to begin a weekly prayer ministry in Fullerton. They started praying Evening Prayer on Wednesdays — the fixed liturgy, for the growth of ministry and for the needs of each other. When the weekly prayers grew to 6-8 in 2018, St. Matthew’s rented space at the local (ELCA) Lutheran church, with both an office and permission to use the nave for midweek worship.

Meanwhile, after Craik graduated from Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, he had been ordained a priest in 2016 by the ACNA’s Diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). Fr. Kevin immediately left with his family to parachute plant a C4SO church in Everett, Washington. However, he found himself drawn to a more Catholic expression of Anglican faith, and also to evangelize in the Orange County suburbs around Fullerton, where both he and his wife Melissa grew up. When a veteran Northwest church planter expressed interest in taking over the Everett church, in late 2018 Fr. Kevin, his wife and their two (later three) children moved to Orange County, where he set up shop at the rented Fullerton office and started meeting and ministering to existing and prospective members there.

In March 2019, St. Matthew’s announced that Craik’s goal was to develop the Fullerton community “to have a church in that area in a few years.” Throughout 2019, he led weekday worship in the rented space, both the regular Wednesday Evening Prayer, and Holy Eucharist for special feasts such as Transfiguration and All Saints. Typically numbering about a dozen, the group also met monthly in a member’s home to share a dinner.

When Covid hit in March 2020, the Wednesday night Evening Prayer moved online, with a brief meditation on the Scripture by Fr. Kevin. The meeting managed to attract 5-10 people each week. During the initial lockdown, he also provided the Eucharist to families in small private masses.

As Covid cases improved, starting on Trinity Sunday (June 7) the state allowed churches to re-open for in-person worship. Fr. Kevin started a Sunday evening Eucharist service inside the church:

In the first few weeks it was about 20 people, and then attendance started to go down with that because it seemed [that] after a little bit people were starting to get nervous again. … The lowest Sunday we maybe only had six people there.

After six weeks, on July 19 the state reinstated its lockdowns. It banned churches from meeting indoors, forcing them to meet (socially distanced) outdoors — but there was no place to meet outdoors at the Lutheran property. The fledgling group faced a dilemma:

We started this kind of gathering, not necessarily thinking even [that] we started a church — it was more [that] we started out as an outpost for people to be able to come and receive the sacraments in this crazy time. … Now we have to meet outside, so where are we gonna go? …

We ended up [that] somebody volunteered their backyard. I thought let’s just do that … not really knowing what was going to happen.

Without the constraints of the host church, Fr. Kevin chose to launch the outdoor service on Sunday morning. At the first Eucharist in the backyard, he was expecting a small group, but instead “30 people came and I was shocked by it.” It turned out that many of the families that were anxious about meeting during Covidtide were willing to meet outside.[10]

Through the fall, Fr. Kevin celebrated in the backyard in his chasuble, with a spoken mass and a brief homily. The group that perhaps drew a dozen pre-Covidtide was now attracting 30-35 attendees every week. In retrospect, the tribulation of the Covid restrictions “brought the community together … [from] this shared experience.”

While California had the nation’s strictest regulations, Orange County was probably the most defiant urbanized county in the state, as when law enforcement agencies announced they would not enforce state-imposed restrictions on outdoor restaurant dining. In the face of these attitudes, Fr. Kevin sought to strike a middle ground:

So many churches that said we’re going stop meeting and then … there were some churches that kind of said screw it, we’re going just meet like normal. … We took the position we’re going to meet, but we’re going to meet according to whatever the guidelines are. … [I said] we’re going to meet, but we’re not going to be mad about it, we’re just going to do what we can do and try to be faithful.

As it became a church, the group chose the name St. Thomas the Apostle. When restrictions briefly eased in November 2020, it was able to worship inside for the first time on a Sunday morning, at 11 am after the main Lutheran service. The following month California locked down statewide to prevent indoor Christmas gatherings. While St. Matthew’s held three Xmas services in its covered patio, plans by St. Thomas for an outdoor Christmas Eve were rained out; however, it was able to host an Epiphany baptism outdoors.

After the Supreme Court overturned California’s restrictions on indoor worship in early February 2021, St. Thomas observed its second Lent inside its (rented) church. During Holy Week, services on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday attracted 40-60 people each, with half that for the Vigil. Easter Sunday set a record with over 70 attending — with perhaps one-third those not previously tied to St. Matthew’s.

In retrospect, the process of Fr. Kevin’s second church plant was very different from the first. For the first, he followed the standard process: a core group, a plan, a schedule. At St. Thomas, many decisions could not be anticipated, but instead were dictated by the changing environment.

Covidtide created opportunities to meet people’s needs that were otherwise blocked (or restricted) by the changing regulations. It took some adjustment to realize that many preferred sitting outdoors on a lawn chair on a summer Sunday morning, over meeting online or (if allowed) even meeting indoors. Fr. Kevin said the backyard experience reminded him of “Catholic priests celebrating mass on the hood of a jeep in World War II, [when] everyone’s looking at the host.”

At the same time, he built upon a nucleus of faithful Anglicans:

St. Thomas had an advantage because [we’re] just doing what we would always do. … [While they might say] this is a little bit different,… they can still do the same thing, and say the same prayers. The rhythm and the pattern of it is the same.

This summer, St. Thomas has launched its first Inquirers’ class on Wednesday nights to catechize those new to Anglicanism (or Christianity more broadly).

Indiana: Trinity Anglican

The most recent of the Covidtide planters is a story already well known to North American Anglican readers: that of Fr. Richard Tarsitano, his wife Meghan and their two children. They are planting Trinity Anglican in Connersville, Indiana, a rural town of 13,000 located midway between Cincinnati, Dayton and Indianapolis. Thus far, he has written three articles for TNAA describing his progress.

The efforts began with the purchase of the sanctuary and parsonage of Trinity Episcopal Church, both state-registered historic buildings completed in 1859. The church never recovered from a split over adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. As Fr. Tarsitano described his predecessors in a February article:

The clergy became deeply involved in progressive political causes: I found a few framed certificates for participation in dinners and events supporting disordered sexuality and other types of anti-Christian activities. Of course, the common grace of God still flowed through the parish’s contributions to the common good (AA meetings, food banks, suppers for the poor), but any church that has abandoned the Gospel to become a social services provider with weekly recitations of progressive political pieties will eventually be replaced by organizations which do this work so much better.

The TEC residual held their final service in January 2017 and handed the property to the Indiana Landmarks Commission — which later sold it to Trinity Anglican.

Other than its ties to the historic property, Trinity Anglican is closest to a classic “parachute” church plant. Fr. Tarsitano’s brother (and later senior warden) John Tarsitano came to Connersville in November 2020 to supervise repairs, while the vicar and the rest of his family arrived January 18 from Florida. They were accompanied by their mother Sally Tarsitano, widow of Rev. Dr. Louis R. Tarsitano (1951-2005).[11]

Regular worship services began in March. The church made an early commitment to Cranmer’s (and later Martin Thornton’s) vision of Daily Office as providing lay Benedictine spirituality, by first launching Daily Office at 7:00 am and 5:15 pm every weekday. The Eucharist began the following Sunday.

Later on, both weekday and Sunday services were streamed via Facebook and YouTube, showing the beautiful stained glass windows that would be decades away for most storefront churches. For Holy Week, in between Sunday morning services for Palm Sunday and Easter, the bivocational Fr. Tarsitano led services every night of Holy Week (including Easter Even) at 5:15 pm.

On Sundays, the church now observes Morning Prayer before the Eucharist and an evensong and catechism in the afternoon. Thus, for the past four months, Fr. Tarsitano has led morning and evening services six days a week, while also holding a secular full-time job. When asked about the long hours, the former chief petty officer laughed and said “Fortunately, I’m still pretty spry: being in the Navy all those years gave me a pretty good work ethic.”

But he believes mission is more than just liturgy:

Having the perfect mass is not going to make people come to church. We should strive for liturgical excellence because that’s our job … but that’s not going to make modern people come into church.

He and his family pursue a variety of ways to create relationships in the community. His day job — which he describes as “tentmaking” in a reference to Acts 18:3 — is helping unemployed workers find jobs. He intentionally picked a position where he could wear clericals to work, which he finds “a great way to talk with people and meet people.”

While he is at work, his wife Meghan is taking the children to a new place in town to meet new people. Several times a month, he goes with his daughter when she sets up a lemonade stand at the local farmer’s market. The Wednesday night Bible study includes dinner in the ground floor of the parsonage, which functions as the parish hall.

As in the pre-Constantinian Church, Fr. Tarsitano believes offering hospitality is an essential way to build relationships:

If you invite someone over to your house, you put yourself out there: it’s sacrificial love. They can reject you, they can do all sorts of things that could make you angry, they could get mad and shout or cry, they could say no or laugh at you…. I think that’s a big way you show people the cross, by living in those possibilities of being harmed for the Gospel, and by then sacrificing for them in ways small and great. It cuts through the noise, it cuts through the narrative, as it did in the Roman Empire.

Finally, Trinity offers Theology on Tap one Friday a month at a local restaurant. The Facebook announcement reminds everyone: “Fr. Richard is buying the first round at 7:00 p.m.”

Confirming What We Knew

Some of the factors for success during this period confirmed what we already knew, both about evangelism, and also about church planting — which depends on evangelizing people to join a nascent church.

Relational model. Whether “belonging before believing,” the “Celtic model,” an emphasis on hospitality or other strategies, many believe that church planting (and evangelism more generally) depends on having a systematic process to meet and create relationships with prospective members; the REC 100 summarizes these as “Front Porch” ministries. Interestingly, three of these four plants — the three established in the last two years — all adopted Theology on Tap, a 40-year-old model[12] of inviting visitors to a neutral meeting place to discuss questions about the nature of life; these clergy also found success wearing clerical garb all week as a way to increase their visibility in the community.

Healthy church. Many American churches are unhealthy because they were tailored to meet the consumer desires of church shoppers. In addition, Anglican churches run the particular risk of being defined by what they aren’t, rather than what they are, and want others to join.

It is hard to attract people to join an unhealthy church. As then Fr. Scarlett wrote in 2011:

What are we inviting people to join? How would a neutral observer assess what we are doing? Is our church the kind of church that someone can join so as to grow in faith? Or is our church majoring in the minor things?[13]

Even a healthy church must continually add new members so that the church remains healthy. Some churches use the customary form of Bible study, while others have a formal process of catechesis for new members. However, formation can’t stop there: Martin Thornton proposes that the health of every church depends on the nucleus who commit to the threefold ascetical discipline of the Eucharist, the Benedictine twice daily offices, and personal prayer; he terms this a “Remnant,” the zealous minority by which “power from the center pervades the whole.”[14]

Healthy churches come from healthy people and other healthy churches. As with families of origin, the clergy and other leaders bring to a new church a conception from their old church as to what a healthy church looks like. Several REC 100 churches have been spawned from a single church in Dallas: Chapel of the Cross. Beyond whatever successful attributes it possesses, its affiliated K-12 school provides extended financial support for new clergy for several years rather than forcing them to move on after one or two years of a curacy.

Attractive and authentic church planter. Having met numerous Anglican church planters in the past seven years, most do live up to the stereotype: charismatic, energetic and organized. Usually, they bring their own kids to start the Sunday school, which makes them seem more approachable for prospective families. Since some candidates are more suited for planting than others, large church planting organizations run assessments on prospective planters;[15] however, running an assessment requires both providing feedback from the bishop or other supervisor, and also (when necessary) discouraging an unsuitable candidate from leading a church plant.

Avoiding obvious mistakes. Decades of church planting research have offered up various rules to aid success and avoid failure for the new church plant.[16] In exceptional circumstances, rules are meant to be broken — as with the rule to “avoid premature launch,” which clearly worked differently in 2020 than it might have in 2019 or 2022.

Learning What’s New

While many practices carry over from normal times, Covidtide also revealed new truths that will impact Anglican church formation for years to come.

The most obvious takeaway from talking to these four planters was this: sacramental churches must be sacramental. It’s deceptively simple, and beyond just the diffuse malaise that many of us in the pews felt after weeks or months of YouTube “church”. If the Eucharist is and does what we say it does — John 6:35 comes to mind — then regularly partaking is more than just a habit or ritual.

As the last 18 months demonstrated, in a time of crisis providing Communion requires creativity and determination. At the same time, during such periods, a Christian can see how important such Communion truly is to the theology and practice of a given church.

Finally, across the country we saw glimpses of the next wave of the culture war. In some state and local governments, worship was classified an “essential” activity. These regions still retain at least a shadow of the founding principles that citizens have inalienable rights “endowed by their creator.”

Elsewhere, other states have cemented their roles as leaders of post-Christian America. These states — where practicing one’s faith is “non-essential” — have been slowed but not discouraged by a series of victories for religious believers. In April, a narrow majority of the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the First Amendment does not allow the exercise of religion to be treated as a second class activity:

[T]he government has the burden to establish that the challenged law satisfies strict scrutiny. … Where the government permits other activities to proceed with precautions, it must show that the religious exercise at issue is more dangerous than those activities even when the same precautions are applied. Otherwise, precautions that suffice for other activities suffice for religious exercise too.[17]

But such an outcome depends entirely on the preferences of nine men and women in black. With other cases (or a different court lineup), the challenges of the next crisis could play out very differently.

Thus, in between crises, the leaders of new and existing Anglican churches need to be clear on what they believe and what they stand for. They then need to offer that friends, neighbors, and total strangers: politely, persistently, and with the conviction that the Church is what we are called to offer our broken world.

End Notes

  1. In January 1978, Bp. Albert Chambers consecrated four new bishops to lead what would be called the “Anglican Church of North America”. See Kenneth A. Briggs, “Episcopal Dissidents Consecrate Bishops,” New York Times, January 29, 1978, p. 24; J. West, “Celebrating 30 years of schism,” Anglican Music weblog, January 28, 2008, URL: https://anglicanmusic.blogspot.com/2008/01/celebrating-30-years-of-schism.html
  2. Several significant Continuing Anglican groups still remain outside the G-4. See J. West, “Future of the Continuing Anglican church,” October 23, 2007, URL: https://anglicanmusic.blogspot.com/2017/10/future-of-continuing-anglican-church.html
  3. The Continuing Forward efforts were put on hold for a year after the nationwide Covid lockdown in March 2020, and are still in very early stages when compared to REC 100 and the ACNA’s Always Forward.
  4. Stephen C. Scarlett, “Church Growth and Evangelism in the Anglican Catholic Church,” VirtueOnline, 2011, URL: https://virtueonline.org/church-growth-and-evangelism-anglican-catholic-church
  5. Stephen C. Scarlett, “Mission Possible,” The Continuum (weblog), January 20, 2020, URL: https://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.com/2020/01/mission-possible-in-fact-gods-will.html
  6. On November 25, 2020, the new Supreme Court majority issued its first two rulings overturning Covid-19 restrictions on religious worship, both involving caps (either 10- or 25-person) on the total number of indoor worshippers (Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn v. Cuomo, Agudath Israel of America v. Cuomo). However, California officials ignored these precedents, and so on February 5, 2021 the court ruled in favor of the two California churches (South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom; Harvest Rock Church, Inc. v. Newsom) and later that month applied its own precedent to reverse bans in two other California cases (Gish v. Newsom; Gateway City Church v. Newsom). Finally, on April 9, 2021, the court struck down the state’s ban on home religious gatherings (Tandon v. Newsom). The problem was not just Gov. Newsom, but also U.S. Court of Appeals: in the Tandon case, the court majority pointedly noted “This is the fifth time the Court has summarily rejected the Ninth Circuit’s analysis of California’s COVID restrictions on religious exercise.”
  7. The virus that causes Covid-19 was briefly called the “Wuhan coronavirus”, but in February 2020 was officially named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2). It is most closely related to SARS-CoV-1, which caused 774 deaths (none in the U.S.) between November 2002 and July 2003.
  8. The oldest Continuing Anglican church is St. Mary of the Angels, founded in 1918 in Hollywood and left the Episcopal Church in the 1970s before the Dennis Canon. See Mary Ann Mueller, “What’s next for St. Mary of the Angels?” VirtueOnline, February 24, 2016, URL: https://virtueonline.org/hollywood-ca-whats-next-st-mary-angels
  9. See Martin Thornton, Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation (London: SPCK, 1956) and Stephen C. Scarlett, “The Idea of a Mission Community,” Diocese of the Holy Trinity, Anglican Catholic Church, September 2016. URL: http://thedht.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/MC-Essay-Sep_2016.pdf
  10. From both my own experience and from observing others, the anxiety created by watching media reports of Covid-19 — rather than their own direct experience — caused most Southern California churchgoers to prefer outdoor to indoor worship until they were vaccinated.
  11. The elder Rev. Tarsitano was the author of An Outline of an Anglican Life: Lessons in the Faith and Practice of the Anglican Church (Houston: Classical Anglican Press, 1994), as well as co-author of three books with English evangelical theologian Fr. Peter Toon (1939-2009) that are now available online: Dear Primates (2000), Neither Archaic nor Obsolete: The Language of Common Prayer and Public Worship (2003), Neither Orthodoxy nor a Formulary: The Shape and Content of the 1979 Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church (2004).
  12. The first “Theology on Tap” was created in 1981 by the Young Adult Ministry of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. See Phyllis M. Hanlon, “Food for Young Appetites”, America, 189, no. 8 (Sept. 22, 2003): 23.
  13. Scarlett, “Church Growth and Evangelism,” 2011.
  14. Martin Thornton, Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1958/2010), p. 21.
  15. Always Forward and the ACNA have previously used the Church Planting Candidate Assessment from Lifeway, the publishing house of the Southern Baptist Convention.
  16. Jim Griffith & Bill Easum, Ten Most Common Mistakes Made by Church New Starts (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2008); J. West, “Always Forward looks back on church planting mistakes,” Anglican Church Planting weblog, December 2016, URL: http://anglicanchurchplanting.blogspot.com/2016/12/always-forward-looks-back-on-church.html
  17. Tandon v. Newsom, 141 S. Ct. 1294 (2021).


Joel W. West

Joel is director of Mission Communities for the Diocese of the Holy Trinity of the Anglican Catholic Church, and also serves on the Continuing Forward task force for mission & evangelism of the G-4 Continuing Anglican jurisdictions. A researcher on Anglican and ecumenical hymn singing and the author of the Anglican Music weblog, he holds an M.A. in Religion from Cranmer Theological House.


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