Showdown looms for Episcopal Md. parish

Priest defies authority of D.C.'s bishop in Accokeek dispute

May 27, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

A conservative Episcopal priest who was hired as rector by a 300-year-old Prince George's County parish is defying the authority of the bishop pro tempore of Washington, who happens to be a woman.

The Rev. Samuel L. Edwards says he doesn't recognize her sacramental authority as bishop and will not receive communion from her.

Bishop Jane H. Dixon says that his conservative views and his claim that the Episcopal Church is "hell-bound" make him unfit to be a rector in her diocese and that she wants him out. He was ordered to cease ministering at Christ Episcopal Church in Accokeek on Friday.

In what might erupt into an ecclesiastical showdown, both say they will preside at this morning's services - without the other.

The furor at Christ Church is the latest flare-up of a smoldering dispute in the 2.5-million member Episcopal Church USA between liberals and conservatives over issues such as homosexuality and the ordination of women.

What might happen this morning is anyone's guess.

"I don't have a crystal ball, but Bishop Dixon has indicated she plans to be here," said Edwards, who has been serving as rector of Christ Church since March. "I think she plans to take over the service. ... I plan to celebrate, but, again, I'm singularly lacking in crystal spheres."

"I will be there to worship with them at 9 o'clock," Dixon said yesterday. "I'm going, and that is as far as I want to go today."

The parish vestry, the governing body that hired Edwards, said it is standing by its priest.

"Father Edwards is our rector," said Barbara K. Sturman, senior warden of Christ Church, who estimates that up to 70 percent of the 200-member congregation supports the priest, although Dixon insists at least half support her and the diocese. "He was called following the canons of the Episcopal Church. He is our rector. That is how our vestry and a lot of the congregation will stand."

Dixon has the support of much of the national church leadership, including Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold, who wrote a statement in March saying, "I cannot imagine a bishop, as chief pastor of a diocese, approving the election of a priest to serve a congregation when that priest has a marked and publicly stated antipathy - far beyond comment and critique - toward the church in which he was ordained."

In addition, she received a statement of support signed by 57 current and retired Episcopal bishops, including Bishop Robert W. Ihloff and Suffragan Bishop John L. Rabb of the Diocese of Maryland, as well as two retired Maryland bishops: A. Theodore Eastman and David Keller Leighton Sr.

Before his call to Christ Church, Edwards was executive director of the Fort Worth, Texas-based Forward in Faith America, a traditionalist Episcopal group. In that role, Edwards criticized what he considered overly liberal leadership in the national church, calling it "hell-bound" and an "Unchurch" with theological views "derived from the kingdom of sin and death."

At the center of the debate is the interpretation of canon law, the law of the church, over how much time the bishop has to accept or reject a parish's choice of rector. The diocese was informed by the vestry of Christ Church's selection of Edwards on Dec. 13. The bishop at that time, Ronald H. Haines, retired at the end of the year and Dixon, the suffragan or assistant bishop, took over, inheriting the matter.

Dixon scheduled a meeting with Edwards on Jan. 10, but it was postponed at his request and was rescheduled for Feb. 26. The bishop didn't like what she heard at that meeting and informed Edwards on March 7 that she would not approve him as rector - nearly three months after his election.

Edwards and his supporters assert that Dixon blew her one-month deadline to oust him and therefore has no canonical right to do so now.

"I thought there might be a block put in the way during the canonical 30-day period," Edwards said. "If she objected within that period, it would have been within her rights to do so and I wouldn't be here. But for some reason she's never made entirely clear, she didn't."

Dixon's answer is that Edwards and the vestry of Christ Church are misinterpreting canon law. "The canons of the Episcopal Church say a bishop may - get the word, `may' - respond to a vestry within 30 days," she said. "To be in contact does not mean you have to give approval within 30 days."

Dixon attempted to quell the division at Christ Church at a raucous church meeting in April - to no avail.

Dixon says that one of her concerns is that Edwards will lead the congregation out of the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the Anglican Communion, to join the Anglican Mission in America, a dissident movement of conservative congregations that have affiliated with the more traditionalist Anglican Church in Rwanda.

Edwards insists that is not his intention. "I don't know how many times I have to tell her - this parish isn't interested in leaving the Episcopal Church," he said.

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