Rich Webster

( [email protected] ) Jan 15, 2004 01:32 PM EST

The Rev. Rich Webster, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur since 1999, has been tapped to become rector at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Mountain Brook, which experienced a church split in 2002.

"Our search committee searched nationally and internationally," said lay leader John Darnall, senior warden of the church. "We found him right in our front yard."

Webster will preach his first sermon as rector Feb. 15 and will attend the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama's annual convention Feb. 5-7 in Montgomery as St. Luke's rector-elect, Darnall said.

"He was eager to come and we were eager to have him," Darnall said. "He's willing to preach the Gospel and share the Gospel."

Webster, 41, has a bachelor's degree from Auburn University Montgomery and a master of divinity degree from Virginia Theological Seminary. After finishing seminary in 1997, he became curate at St. John's Episcopal Church in Montgomery and was chaplain of Holy Cross Episcopal School in Montgomery. He has written a book, "Sermons From the View." He and his wife, Ellen, have two children: Copeland, 12, and Betsy, 10.

St. Luke's leaders hope Webster can stabilize the church after recent turmoil.

The 15-member vestry, St. Luke's leadership board, requested the resignation of the Rev. Douglas Richnow in 2002 after a 13-month tenure characterized by infighting. Rich now returned to his former church in Houston.

In the wake of the controversy, St. Luke's experienced a loss of membership from a high of 3,567 members at the end of 2001 to 3,110 members on July 1, 2003, according to the parish profile posted on the church's Web site. The budget dropped from $2.8 million in 2001 to $2.2 million in 2003.

The fight also spawned a new church founded by former members of St. Luke's.

St. Peter's Anglican Church, which meets in the Crestline Elementary School auditorium, joined the Anglican Mission in America, founded by Episcopal priests who became missionary bishops for Anglican dioceses in Africa and Asia. The Anglican Mission takes in U.S. Episcopal churches that want to be part of the Anglican Communion, the worldwide church associated with the Church of England, but feel the U.S. Episcopal Church has become too liberal.

Webster has taken a middle-ground approach on the controversy over the Episcopal Church's approval of its first openly gay bishop, the Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.

Webster said after Robinson's approval last year that he did not support the decision and that more theological work needed to be done before the acceptance of an openly gay bishop. But he also said it was still important to include gay Christians in the life of the church.

"People of New Hampshire read their Bibles, too, and say their prayers, too," he told the Decatur Daily.

Darnall said he didn't expect Webster to have to deal with much fallout from past divisions when he arrives at St. Luke's.

"We're not really split anymore," Darnall said. "We've done our own healing."

He said Webster has qualities that can give the church a lift. "He brings to the table an awful lot of energy and confidence."