Psalms of Silence

Within the weathered walls of Trinity Episcopal Church, the rich opening swells of Bach's "Fantasie in g minor" fill the sanctuary and announce the evening choral service. Ed Franklin, draped in colorful vestments, effortlessly works the keyboard of the restored Pilcher pipe organ despite the cast that encases much of his left arm. The majestic music seems a perfect match for the church, all stained glass and carved stone and thick-grained wood.

From the back of the room, the members of Trinity's choir file in solemn procession to their place before the altar. As the service unfolds, their voices blend in a seamless mix that adds luster to the ceremony. Franklin directs the music from the organ bench. The motley collection of scrubbed young families, elderly couples and street people in the solid oak pews absorbs the harmonies in silent communion.

Except for the more bedraggled believers, the scene has changed little since Trinity's heyday as Houston's premier Episcopal church in the 1930s and '40s. While other congregations have modernized their services to make them more accessible to younger worshipers and attract new members, Trinity remains a bastion of tradition.

Most of the current members of the congregation prefer it that way, some commuting long distances every Sunday to savor the Trinity experience. "It's one of the main things I enjoy about the church," says Karen Dodwell, who has worshiped at Trinity since 1985 and co-edits The Trinity Windows, the monthly parish newsletter. "It connects us with the church's history."

Franklin, who derisively refers to the use of electric instruments and a more freeform, charismatic approach to the service as "camp music" and "happy-clappy stuff," has been directing the choir for the last 15 years. A demanding boss, he's whipped his 25 singers into top form: This summer, they're touring England for the second time in four years. "This choir is the best in the diocese," Franklin says with pride.

That may not be the case for long. After the choir returns from the trip in late July, Franklin will no longer be at the helm. On February 3, Claude Payne, Bishop of the Diocese of Texas, issued a "godly judgment" that first praised Franklin's skills -- then fired him.

The move, which came after months of turmoil at Trinity that culminated in the removal of the rector, has bitterly divided the parish and driven some parishioners away from the church entirely. Several members of Trinity's vestry, which functions as the board of directors, want to defy Payne and keep Franklin in his position. Others are equally adamant that Franklin must go. "Once the bishop issued his godly judgment," says vestry member Max Patterson, "I believe we had an obligation to follow it."

Just why Payne has demanded that Franklin be fired is the subject of much speculation, because the bishop has said little other than that he's acting in Trinity's best interest (Payne did not return several phone calls to his office). "Ed, I have never questioned your sincerity or your professional confidence," he wrote to Franklin after issuing his edict. "In my heart of hearts I simply think a change in the role of organist/choirmaster for Trinity is best for that congregation's health and wholeness."

That rankles active church members such as Chris Reid, who serves on the vestry and also sings in the choir. "We keep hearing that the bishop is doing this for our own good," says Reid, who points out that Payne has almost never set foot in Trinity since taking office in 1995. "I don't think the bishop has the first clue about what's good for Trinity parish."

Payne may not be thinking as much about Trinity's fate as about other, bigger-picture concerns. The clash over the choirmaster reflects ongoing conflicts within the Episcopal church over competing priorities and issues of power and authority. For the bishop, who has committed himself to dramatically increasing the number of church members in his diocese, there's more at stake here than a single part-time job. However, Franklin's fate reflects the personal impacts being felt from the larger struggles of the church.

The vestry hasn't yet ironed out the details of Franklin's departure, which in theory takes effect after the choir gets back from England next month. For one thing, members want to ensure that his firing won't jeopardize Franklin's health insurance -- the organist recently had an operation to clear up a severe staph infection in his elbow and may be in a cast for months. Still, while some remain optimistic that Franklin's job with Trinity can somehow be salvaged, most, including Franklin, think otherwise. "It's over," he says.

If so, his departure could spell the end of Trinity's choir, which is fiercely loyal to Franklin. Three members, angered by the strife, have already left. Others see little place for them after the tour is completed. "As it stands today, we have no future at this church as of July 31," says choir member Janet Flasch. "After we come back from England, that's it. Sayonara."  

And if the choir goes, the entire traditional music program and worship service that so many Trinity parishioners hold dear may eventually dissolve into the footnote that similar programs have become at other parishes in the area.

Moreover, Trinity's tribulations have shaken the faith of many parishioners, which could in turn reverberate throughout the diocese. "I'm embarrassed to be an Episcopalian with regard to how the church is treating Ed," says Karen Dodwell. "If Ed goes, I will be very disenchanted with the Episcopal Church and the way it operates."

When Trinity Mission was founded in 1893, no Episcopal church existed in Houston's South End, centered around Milam and Holman streets. As the city was expanding, the congregation grew quickly. By the time the current building at the corner of Holman and Main opened for business in 1919, Trinity boasted more than 500 members.

At its zenith, the membership list topped 2,100, ranking it sixth among Episcopal congregations nationwide, according to Trinity historian Gail Davies-Cooley. But as the suburbs expanded ever outward in the 1970s and what had become the midtown area fell into a state of disrepair and neglect, the growth trend reversed, and Trinity became a marginal parish.

On Christmas Eve, 1984, Trinity came up short an organist for Midnight Mass, and Ed Franklin got the call. A Baytown native whose father was an Exxon lifer, Franklin earned a graduate degree in music and later studied organ in Vienna. Not the most ambitious artist, he returned to Houston and was doing some vocal coaching at Rice and Houston Baptist while tending a small catering business on the side. Wowed by Trinity's beauty and commitment to its roots, he decided to stay. "Music and liturgy, that's what did it," he says. "That's what brings most people to the Episcopal Church."

His passion for the music and dedication to the job have inspired fierce loyalty and respect among the choir. "I'd walk from Humble if I had to for Ed Franklin," says Janet Flasch, who instead drives the 40-mile commute several times a week.

At first, Franklin worked with a mostly professional choir, as many churches do, hiring musicians from the opera for Sunday services. Though the singers had plenty of talent, their lack of commitment to Trinity bugged him. "They came in, they sang, they left," Franklin says. "That was frustrating to me."

After coasting for several years, the choirmaster switched to a volunteer bunch when a shrinking budget forced him to drop the pros. Inspired by several appearances at other churches, the group developed into a cohesive force and dedicated themselves to their mission. "A choir is only good if they're thinking alike," says Franklin. "They've got to breathe together."

The choir's efforts yielded trips to the Berkshire Choral Festival in Santa Fe and other outside gigs, culminating in the 1995 tour of England and the release of the group's debut CD. The future looked bright.

But later that same year, Trinity rector Stephen Bancroft took a job as dean of the Cathedral in Detroit. Under Bancroft, the church had refocused its efforts to better reflect the neighborhood, launching a ministry and other initiatives for the homeless and taking an active role in midtown economic development. Those efforts had borne fruit -- after two decades of declining membership, Trinity's rolls stabilized, then increased.

In the wake of Bancroft's departure, the most active parishioners stepped in to sustain the programs the rector had established or revived. Much of the help came from the choir, which by then had established itself as Trinity's strongest institution. Members served on the vestry and held other positions of responsibility. Franklin himself conducted evening prayer, made sandwiches for the homeless, virtually ran the garden club and otherwise made himself indispensable. "It's not a job, it's a lifestyle," he says.

Meanwhile, a search committee had been convened to find a new rector. Under the Episcopal canons, the vestry has the authority to hire a new rector of its choosing unless the desired candidate comes from outside the 57-county diocese, in which case the bishop must give his permission.

Apparently, though, Bishop Claude Payne had other ideas. The search committee scouted about and located a couple of excellent candidates, one an assistant rector at Palmer Episcopal Church, and the other the deacon of Episcopal High School. As a courtesy, they submitted the names to Payne for his feedback, but the bishop nixed them and offered a couple of names of his own for consideration. The committee played ball. "In our minds, the bishop's recommendations carried a lot of weight," says Catherine Reed, a member of the committee.  

The screening process ultimately left two candidates standing: the ones suggested by Payne.

Another round of scrutiny later, the committee had its top choice, which the vestry passed unanimously -- John Graham, an assistant rector at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Austin. A relative latecomer to the clergy, Graham had left behind a thriving plastic surgery practice in Shreveport to attend the seminary several years earlier.

That wasn't Graham's first significant professional change -- he had previously switched his medical field from ear, nose and throat surgery to plastic surgery after a series of epiphanies, which he chronicled in a 1983 book, Mold Me and Shape Me. In the book, Graham describes how God called him to plastic surgery and tested his obedience on numerous occasions. In one case, Graham was about to shave off his beard when God challenged him, "Did I tell you to do that?" God asked him the same question later as he was driving his Pontiac to the repair shop. Steam pouring from the radiator, he drove the Pontiac home and parked it in his driveway.

Not the most common religious experience, but such passages weren't enough to dissuade those on the search committee or vestry who read the book. Nor were Graham's literary accounts of demonic possession and exorcism, colleagues accusing him of paranoia, and suggestions that he needed psychiatric help.

Nevertheless, Mold Me, Shape Me did provoke unease among the ranks of the Trinity faithful. "When I read that book, I thought, I don't want to have a personal relationship with this guy," says one parishioner. "He seemed like a scary person."

Just after Graham accepted the job in March 1996, Trinity senior warden Brad Beers hosted a reception for the new rector and the vestry at his home. By the time Graham officially took the Trinity reins on June 2, 1996 -- Trinity Sunday -- he and his wife, Pat, had already moved into the rectory, a $400,000 spread in West U the church had purchased to house him.

First impressions were promising. The Grahams indicated they'd like to have a meal with every member of the congregation and otherwise be socially involved with the parish, a pleasant contrast to the previous rector. "It seemed like it was all going to be very, very positive," says Doug Stiles, a former vestry and choir member who recently moved to California.

And John Graham seemed especially excited about the prospect of working with Ed Franklin and the choir. "Pat and I were so very blessed by hearing the Trinity choir in concert," he wrote in an April letter to Franklin. "What a moving experience it was!"

Within a month of his arrival, however, Graham had apparently changed his tune. One Sunday, the new rector conducted his first Rite Two service, a less formal version of the more traditional Rite One version favored at Trinity, which has remained essentially unchanged for 70 years. After the service, Graham pulled Franklin aside and accused him of deliberately trying to sabotage it by playing a couple of hymns at the wrong tempo. "I was dumbfounded," Franklin says. (Graham declined to speak about his tenure at Trinity other than to say he'd been "blessed" to serve there and wished the parish well.)

Relations between Franklin and Graham deteriorated as the months passed. Then, as the choirmaster recalls, "All hell broke loose on Easter Sunday."

Actually, Easter itself went off without a hitch, at least as far as the choirmaster was concerned. According to Franklin, Graham even congratulated him warmly at the end of the service. But the following Tuesday, he met with the Grahams and John Castor, a Trinity official and choir member. The Easter service, Graham said, was one of the worst he'd ever heard, an attempt to deceive him and subvert his ministry. He harangued Franklin for more than half an hour until the organist finally walked out. "He said, 'You're doing this to me deliberately,' " Franklin says. "The attack was very personal."

Nor did it make much sense -- the service was the identical one the choir had been practicing for weeks, and Graham had been aware of all the particulars in advance.

Strangely, though, Graham penned a letter of praise to Franklin three days later. "I must thank you, Ed, for being the spiritual leader of this choir, for inspiring them to achieve their very best and being present week after week for all of us with a smile and a heart of love," he wrote. "Trinity's choir is everything a rector could hope for and more."  

Graham's next outburst occurred in mid-May, on Pentecost. Nervous at the presence of Canon Kevin Martin, a diocesan higher-up who was at Trinity to speak with the vestry, Graham went to Franklin an hour before the service and demanded that the music be changed. Franklin refused, since the choir had rehearsed the service for days and it would have been almost impossible to pull off any revisions at the 11th hour.

The insubordination didn't sit well with Graham. "He was livid," Franklin says. Though the rector later apologized, according to Franklin, he didn't accept. "I just said, 'Get off this bench and leave me alone.' "

Though only a handful of parishioners had witnessed the conflict between the rector and choirmaster, Graham went public July 13. In the middle of the Sunday morning service, he suddenly turned and faced the choir. Telling the assemblage that they needed to give their allegiance to him and no one else, Graham berated them in a rambling lecture that left everyone stunned. "To this day, when I think about what happened, I'm flabbergasted," says Doug Stiles, who removed his vestments and left in the middle of the diatribe.

The rest of the choir members stood transfixed. "All I have left is the impression of a little boy stamping his feet and saying, 'I'm the leader and you have to follow me,' " says Catherine Reed.

After the service, Stiles went to Graham's office to complain. The reaction, he says, wasn't especially rectorly. "Out of nowhere he transformed into this screaming, raving maniac," says Stiles. "He was in my face, yelling, shaking his finger at me. I was just another evil member of the choir who was trying to undermine everything he was trying to do."

At various subsequent meetings, Graham would deny that such incidents had occurred.

Vestry member Max Patterson chalks up the problems with Graham to the normal tensions between the rector and choirmaster. The issue, he says, wasn't so much about song tempos or hymn choices, but rather who was in charge. "One of the biggest problems [new] rectors always face is dealing with the choirmaster," Patterson says.

Moreover, he says, Franklin isn't the easiest guy to get along with. "He is a very strong-willed person," says Patterson. "He's pretty much set in his ways." Since Graham wanted change and Franklin didn't, the result was inevitable. "I think it was two personalities that basically clashed," he says. "There was a huge communication problem on both sides."

That doesn't explain the troubles that other church leaders were having with the rector, however, which were documented in letters to the senior warden, the bishop and Graham himself. Some had borne the brunt of the rector's wrath; others simply disagreed with his actions. But they were dropping out of the Christian education program, the altar guild, the garden club and other activities -- as well as Trinity itself.

And their conclusions were beginning to sound strikingly similar. "We, therefore, must regretfully request that the vestry begin the process of removing John Graham, in order to seek a priest more suitable for Trinity," wrote parishioners Ron and Pat Evensen in a letter to the vestry. "Until such action is taken, we will divert our pledge away from those funds which pay the rector."

The vestry did just that, initiating the process required to impeach Graham. But the group was divided on just how to proceed, so they invoked Episcopal rules and brought in diocesan Bishop Claude Payne to mediate -- and ultimately decide -- Graham's fate. Pat Graham, who had run the church's administrative affairs as the rector's assistant and gotten into her own scrapes with the staff, resigned in October. The rector took a leave of absence from Trinity the following month.

Finally, after several failed attempts to resolve the issue to everyone's satisfaction, the bishop issued his godly judgment. John Graham would have to go.

So would Ed Franklin.

When Claude Payne became bishop of the Diocese of Texas in February, 1995, he wasted little time before staking himself out. His goal, which would become part of the official diocesan mission statement, was to increase the number of Episcopalians under his authority from 77,000 to 200,000 in just ten years. It was a heady goal: Payne's predecessor, Maurice Benitez, had seen a 17,000-member increase during his 13 years in office.

Whether or not Payne's goal is realistic remains to be seen, but early returns aren't good. The latest figures, according to the bishop's office, show a negligible increase after Payne's first three years, averaging maybe 1,000 annually.

Almost every denomination faces an ongoing struggle to increase the rolls, but for the Episcopal church, the problem is especially acute. Since 1976, the church has lost about a quarter of its members nationwide and is down to a decades-low 2.5 million. Splits over ideological issues such as the ordination of women and gays, which the church has officially embraced, have pushed entire congregations to secede and affiliate elsewhere. In 1991, for example, the 760-member Church of the Apostles in Atlanta pulled out of the Episcopal church because of policies it saw as too liberal.  

In the past, the Episcopal church has managed to accommodate a wide variety of political views within its ranks, the lot held together by a common form of worship. But pressure to take a stand on social issues has increased in the past 20 years, which in turn has made the political differences harder to bridge.

In this context, Payne's objective to almost triple in size seems far-fetched if not impossible. To get there, individual parishes would have to embark on bold new ventures, especially those that reach out to the "unchurched." As Payne noted in his address this February at the annual diocesan council, "Our goal is so large that it necessitates a continuing change in our church culture. I challenge us to reform and refocus our entire community life on being an apostolic, missionary church."

In particular, Payne said, those insular parishes that are content to remain as they are must rethink their strategies to reflect this new objective. Noting the tendency of congregations to be satisfied with the status quo, he criticized those for whom "maintaining the church [is] the mission of the church."

To the traditionalists at Trinity, such statements are aimed directly at them. They believe that the bishop wants to see the traditional worship program at Trinity eliminated or at least weakened in favor of a more accessible style à la the Baptists, whose family-entertainment approach has proven successful in building large congregations. "The diocese is looking to be more user-friendly," says Chris Reid, who is a member of the vestry and performs other ceremonial duties as well. Reid says that the bishop flatly stated his opinion on the matter at a January meeting of the vestry about the problems there. "What I heard is that it is his belief that traditional styles of worship cannot work if we are to bring in the unchurched," he says.

Reid argues that such a view presents a slippery slope. "How many traditions are you willing to give up in your desire to get the unchurched involved?" he asks rhetorically. "Where do we stop when we start to dismantle fundamental ministries?"

Though the bishop has said little about his intentions, his emissaries have denied that dismantling the traditional music program and modernizing Trinity are on the agenda. After issuing his godly judgment, Payne sent consultant George Brookover to Trinity to interview parishioners and assess the situation there. Brookover rebutted the idea that Payne had it in for Trinity's old-time religion. "This attitude about the bishop's scheme for TEC is pervasive and presents as a form of paranoia (varying from mild to hysterical)."

Still, Brookover's report does little to assuage the fears. Though he never states what the bishop's intentions actually are, he hints that change is in the air. "A change in worship style or musical preferences would not be the apocalypse that a few members of the parish, including choristers, anticipate would be the outcome," he wrote in conclusion.

And he couldn't resist getting in a little dig of his own about Trinity's current style. "Even though I am a product of a liturgical church tradition," Brookover wrote, "I did not find the service [at Trinity] 'user friendly.' "

The report's tone offended many who have lived and breathed Trinity for years. Especially galling was Brookover's insinuation that the problems with John Graham were the result of a handful of "chronically anxious" parishioners who wanted Graham gone. "These persons, first individually and then in collaboration, appear to have set out to destabilize the rookie new rector," he wrote."The fingerprints of the chronically anxious, at that moment in time, are very much in evidence."

Though it may have served the bishop's purposes, Brookover's report only solidified the distrust that many parishioners feel about Payne. They believe that Ed Franklin is the scapegoat for the bishop's own mistake in recommending John Graham to Trinity in the first place. "The bishop created the controversy," says Chris Reid. "Now he's using the controversy to fire Ed."

And if the bishop's purpose is to open the door to change and beef up the rolls accordingly, what better way to do it than to fire the person who is most identified with the status quo? "I don't think it was a godly judgment at all," says former vestry member Mike Dahlenburg, who resigned in April after a contentious meeting and hasn't been back to Trinity since. "I think it was a personal decision. I don't think God had anything to do with it."  

Though some members have held out hope that the bishop might change his mind and allow Franklin to continue on an interim basis until a new rector is hired, that hope has faded. Payne has stated that not only must Franklin leave his post as organist/choirmaster, but he's permanently barred from those jobs in the future.

Though he's been invited to share with the parish his rationale for booting Franklin, Payne has declined the opportunity to date. Except for general statements that the move will somehow benefit Trinity in the long run, none of Payne's underlings have offered any explanations, either.

Lacking a reason to grasp hold of, it's hard for those who have worked with Franklin the past 15 years not to feel like he's being tossed out on his ear. Especially since his biggest sin, it seems, was to be too involved with Trinity, to have accumulated too much loyalty and respect among the parishioners. After all, such involvement is supposed to be the cornerstone of one's faith. "To be punished for doing what they say we should do is just wrong," says Catherine Reed. "It seems so immoral to [fire him] in this manner. For a church to do it, it's just unbelievable."

Reid and other members of the vestry urged their peers to defy the bishop and keep Franklin on the payroll. But the majority wouldn't go along: This past Sunday, the vestry voted unanimously on a compromise proposed by Brad Beers: Franklin will relinquish his organist/choirmaster title, but will stay on the payroll, with benefits, for two years.

Those who pushed to remove Franklin had different reasons. Gordon Moore insisted that Franklin's insubordination to John Graham was grounds enough for termination. Max Patterson and others argued that the bishop's word must be respected, even if one might disagree with it. "I tend to believe that authority means something," Patterson says.

Despite his lame-duck status, Franklin continues to spend most of his free time at Trinity, preparing music for Sunday services, readying the choir for the upcoming tour of England, answering the phones and taking care of whatever else needs doing. But his heart's not entirely in the work. "I feel really cut off from everything," he says. "I'm embarrassed. Here's the guy that will just not go away. That's how I feel."

After the choir returns from England, however, that's just what he'll do. "I have no intentions of barricading myself at the organ bench or anything," he says. "That's not my game."

As for his future plans, Franklin says they're up in the air. "I'm not going into another church-related business, that's for sure," he says. "I'd rather sell clothes. I'd be perfectly happy selling clothes."

Franklin may depart, but other parishioners plan to stick it out. Brad Beers, a Franklin supporter, says he'll remain in his senior warden's job (akin to a chairman of the board), even though Payne has hinted he should resign. "The bishop has said that he needed somebody that he could work with. I didn't have any doubt what he was talking about," Beers says. "But I didn't agree to be senior warden [only] as long as things are going the way I want them to go."

Just which way things will go in the wake of Franklin's departure is unclear. Replacing him with someone equally skilled will be difficult, if not impossible, especially at his salary -- Franklin works more than 40 hours a week, but only gets paid for 20. And the ordeal has left the choir members exhausted and disheartened. "I don't know whether I'll be able to sing [in a new-look choir]," says Catherine Reed.

A search for a new rector is under way, though it's not clear what the search committee will look for, or whether the bishop will again try to influence the process. Regardless, it's going to be hard to heal the hurt and resolve the ill will that the last two years have witnessed. The odds that the spiritual foundation on which Trinity has been built will crack and crumble would make a bettor drool. "I think one of the things that has held the church together is what is being thrown away today," says Reed sadly. "This has torn us apart."

E-mail Bob Burtman at

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