St. George’s Debates the Death Penalty, 2001

In the May 2001 newsletter Charles Sydnor wrote the following statement on the death penalty

Dear Friends in Christ,

The vestry and I have been discussing possible responses to a call for a moratorium on the death penalty in Virginia. We believe our mandate to have such discussions comes from our Baptismal Covenant in which we say that we will, with God’s help, strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. In our discussions we recognized that the issue of separation of church and state does not preclude a church stating its opinion on moral issues or advocating a position When the founding fathers said in our constitution that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion,” that principle in no way denies the religious community the privilege to speak out It docs prevent the government from giving favored status to any religious group

The vestry felt that our whole congregation should have an opportunity to discuss the reasons why a moratorium is being advocated by groups like Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. (Sec their web site: www.vadp.org) We also received a resolution from the Fredericksburg Area Ministerial Association (of which I am vice-president) calling on its member congregations for prayerful study and consideration of a moratorium on executions in Virginia. Many other Episcopal parishes have already taken a position advocating a moratorium. Our last General Convention both re-affirmed its opposition to the death penalty and called for a moratorium, especially in light of racial inequities in its application. The 206”’ Council of our Diocese meeting this year called on our parishes to work for the abolition of the death penalty and called upon the Governor of the Commonwealth and each member of the Assembly to pass a moratorium.

In the near future we will be advertising a forum at St. George’s for us to hear presentations on the call for a moratorium and share our responses I hope you attend.

As we discuss this matter we should be sensitive that such discussion elicits anger and grief. Among us will we be both victims and survivors of violent crimes Why condemn the evil of violence, we pray that God s grace  will lead to repentant hearts and reformed lives

My personal opposition to the death penalty and support for a moratorium is expressed very well by the words from the Virginia Council Churches Statement on the Death Penalty.

“At the heart of God’s justice is the dignity of the human person, created in the image of God me redeemed by Jesus Christ. The death penalty is an affront to human dignity It is not handed down to offenders by a flawless judicial system Rather, the deaf penalty operates like a lethal lottery, influenced by one r ability to afford quality legal services, one’s race, and the race of one’s victim, and the pressures of public opinion The death penalty is an empty promise It cannot restore lost lives It cannot repair shattered relationships’ leaves no possibility of reform or recompense .It does not make our streets and homes safer.”

While some of you may not agree with words, I hope you will prayerfully consider them

Yours in Christ

Charles 

The discussion Charles refers to came about from General Council earlier in the year. Resolution 8-A – was adopted by 206th Annual Council. This reaffirmed the Church’s longstanding opposition to capital punishment and called on the Diocese and its churches to “work actively to abolish the death penalty” and to send the resolution to those in authority. The Diocese of Virginia passed a moratorium on the Death Penalty Feb 5

At the March, 2001 Vestry meeting Charles distributed information to the Vestry on the subject of the death penalty and a moratorium. Charles and two members of the church, Terry Eslinger and Janis Hales  attended a meeting to  on March 20 and was the contents were summarized.  

At the April meeting the following resolution was presented “We, hereby, request the Governor of the State of Virginia halt all executions until policies and procedures are implemented to insure that death penalty cases are administered fairly and impartially; eliminate the risk of executing an innocent person; strive to eliminate discrimination in capital sentencing; and prevent the execution of mentally retarded persons and persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offense.” This resolution was tabled .

Alan Gayle offered a substitute “The Vestry of St. George’s Episcopal Church, in response to and in and in support of current efforts to institute a moratorium on the death penalty in Virginia ask the Christian Education and Outreach and Evangelism Commissions to develop forums for the members of St. George’s to prayerfully consider their petitions on the death penalty.

This resolution was passed.

This was the context for Charles Sydnor’s newsletter article.

On May 20 at the Sunday Youth Group meeting Episcopal Priest Jay Fletcher Lowe, Henry Heller of Virginians against the Death Penalty and Elizabeth Simpson, a 17 year old student discussed the moratorium.

George Beddoe at the June meeting made a motion “That the Vestry move from the Table the Moratorium motion and amend it to read “The Vestry advocates the abolishment of the Death Penalty in Virginia.” However, it was tabled until the July meeting due to the absence of four members.

In July, the Vestry was divided 3 ways “based on several critical issues” and the motion failed.  In the end the Vestry agreed on the following statement presented by Donna Saunders. “The Vestry asks each member of St. George’s to prayerfully consider and act as they are led on their own position on the matter of the death penalty in Virginia.”


The death penalty debate was revived by the Outreach Commission in 2016. A separate Death Penalty  Discussion Group was formed that met monthly.  They organized separate discussion sessions as well as held vigils for scheduled executions.

Carey Chirico wrote “On Sunday, April 17, 2016, during confirmation and the renewal of baptismal vows, the Right Rev. Ted Gulick asked the St. George’s congregation,  “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”  The Outreach Commission is having conversation about the laws in Virginia that directly impact those who have been found guilty of taking the life of another, requiring the loss of their own life at the hands of the state.  Can we respond to the call to respect the dignity of every human being when at the same time our justice system resorts to state sanctioned killing of its citizens who have done grievous wrongs?

“Our present legislative body has struggled this session with bringing back the electric chair as default method of execution should lethal drugs be made unavailable The Governor has vetoed that “electric chair” bill and instead has proposed seeking out other manufacturers to provide execution drugs and keeping the identity of those agencies secret. The Governor contends that manufacturers will continue to refuse to supply drugs to Virginia unless their names are kept under wraps.  Other lawmakers insist that the execution of human beings is something that ought to have the maximum transparency and not be shrouded in secrecy.

They hosted The Rev. Cari Willis on Aug 31, 2016 has been ministering with men in prison for the past 10 years. Her work began in the prison hospice ward where she learned how to sit and listen deeply to the realities of incarceration from the men who would eventually die behind the walls

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