Westboro Baptist Church and its controversial anti-gay picketing will survive beyond the death of founder and Pastor Fred Waldron Phelps Sr., a son who left the church said.
Phelps, 84, the only pastor the church has had in its almost 60-year history, is in Midland Care Hospice in Topeka, the church confirmed Sunday.
When Phelps dies, it doesn't mean the end of Westboro Baptist Church.
The church, its picketing, and its noisy anti-gay stance will survive his death and will continue, said Nate Phelps, a son of Fred Phelps Sr. who broke away from the church 37 years ago.
"It's impossible to know, but I don't think it's going to disappear," Nate Phelps said.
Contacted late Sunday night, Nate Phelps said he honestly didn’t know exactly how he felt about his father’s impending death.
“I’m surprised I have any emotions about it,” Nate Phelps said. “I thought I settled this years ago.
“There’s some sadness. It’s difficult.”
Topeka lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray and Barry Crawford, professor of religion at Washburn University, agreed.
With Fred Phelps Sr.'s death, you hope there will be a cessation of the "level of hatred we've historically seen," Irigonegaray said.
"But I'm not sure that's going to happen," Irigonegaray said. The church and picketing will live on, Irigonegaray said.
Westboro members are "very committed" to a life they say is "divinely driven," Irigonegaray said, "and it may be difficult for them to abandon (an identity) they've adopted as their reason for existing."
What will happen with the church after Fred Phelps Sr.'s death "has been a moving target for me over the years," Nate Phelps said. "Originally, my thought was he's the engine that powers it, it's his drive that keeps the message and the effort alive. So I said early on it can't continue to exist."
But Nate Phelps has watched the church and had "encounters" with Tim Phelps, 50, his younger brother, and Steve Drain, who joined the church and is its spokesman.
"The rhetoric and the intensity is there in several of them that matches my father or is close to it," Nate Phelps said. "I don't necessarily believe it will die off."
Crawford said that in the typical pattern, a church led by a charismatic pastor peters out when that charismatic figure is gone because the church was "personality driven."
In that case, the church lacks an institutional, organizational structure to keep it going. An example of organizational structure is the Catholic Church — when the pope dies, a new one is elected, Crawford said.
Even notwithstanding the Westboro Baptist Church's rule that women are in subservient to men, Crawford mentioned Shirley Phelps-Roper, 56, former longtime church spokeswoman, as a possible replacement for her father.
"She seems to be a pretty authoritative figure in the church," Crawford said.
However, Nate Phelps said the next leader won't be a woman.
Shirley Phelps-Roper has been the "titular" leader of the church, Nate Phelps said.
"She can't be the leader of that church, the pastor of Westboro Baptist Church," he said. "That's because of the passages in the Bible that say women are to be subservient to the men."
Who will lead the church?
Nate Phelps said a male member of Westboro Baptist Church doesn’t necessarily have to have formal theological training to be selected as the new pastor, Nate Phelps said.
Fred Phelps Sr. "was clear throughout his career that the church of Christ is a local independent entity and not beholden to any hierarchy beyond that local church. So if he decides as the head of that church that someone has demonstrated God's grace and ability and understanding of the doctrines of faith, he could ordain him just fine," Nate Phelps said.
"Anyone there as long as my siblings could get up and do the same job as the old man has done. They've heard (the preachings) a million times," Nate Phelps said.
Nate Phelps guesses that his brother Tim Phelps or church spokesman Steve Drain, who both have "shown the fire," are top candidates.
Son: Death will rock members
On Sunday, Drain said Westboro Baptist Church doesn't have a designated leader, that "the Lord Jesus Christ is our head." Male elders in the church share the preaching duties, Drain said.
The death of Fred Phelps Sr. will raise a big issue for the church members because they don't believe any of them are going to die, Nate Phelps said.
"They fully expected that Christ is going to return, and they are going to be taken up with him because they think that death is a judgment from God," Nate Phelps said. "So far, that illusion has held because none of them has passed.
"They're clear about that, that they're not going to feel the sting of death," Nate Phelps said. But anytime a prophecy fails, the notion that that will dismantle the system is far from true, and the system is stronger and bigger because they have to dig down deep and come up with "some palatable justification" to move forward, he said.
A stronger bond in the church
The death of Fred Phelps Sr. and the possible dropping away of some members could translate to stronger bonds among remaining church members, Nate Phelps said.
"They don't have a choice but to see this all as them being tested," Nate Phelps said, "and for those really committed to it, it becomes more impossible to consider changing their mind about all this. That's stronger than any physical bond you can ever imagine."
Irigonegaray said the church will continue in part to show respect for Fred Phelps Sr., their father and leader. But the remaining members' legacy is important.
"If this falls apart, what does that say about them?" Irigonegaray said. He hopes the remaining members "find greater peace for themselves. All this hateful activity has to be very wearing."
For more coverage of Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, visit cjonline.com.