Defiant Md. rector holds services

Parishioners bar bishop from altar

May 28, 2001|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

ACCOKEEK -- Angry at her decision to remove their conservative priest, members of a 303-year-old Episcopal parish barred Washington's acting bishop from presiding over their morning services yesterday, then protested as she held a makeshift Mass on an outdoor basketball court.

The showdown did not resolve whether the Rev. Samuel L. Edwards will stay on at Christ Episcopal Church, but it put the small southern Prince George's County parish at ground zero in the growing national divide between liberals and conservatives in the 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church.

Edwards, who has called the Episcopal Church "the Unchurch" and said that the denomination is "hell-bound" unless it returns to traditional teachings, was ordered Friday to stop ministering at Christ Church by the Rt. Rev. Jane H. Dixon, bishop pro tempore of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

But Edwards stayed on, setting up yesterday's ecclesiastical clash. The dispute has deeply fractured this tight-knit community, where some parishioners said they would pursue trespassing charges against Dixon and other legal action to keep Edwards in his post.

"We've had people who've been lifelong friends who have been, in a sense, divided by this," said Frank S. McDonough, 42, who described his religious views as moderate but said he thinks Edwards should stay.

"If there's a congregation within the diocese or within the church that prefers to have a very liberal priest or interpretation of the Bible ... I may not agree with that, but I'm not going to fight that congregation," McDonough said. "And I think it's so far out of step for her to come and fight what we believe in here."

Dixon has said she ordered Edwards to step down as rector -- the post he formally assumed over her objections in March -- because she feared he might lead the Maryland parish out of the Episcopal Church. Dixon, the second woman to be elevated to the position of bishop within the church, went to Accokeek yesterday to preside over services and to try to help the parish heal.

Dressed in bright-red vestments and carrying a tall, wooden staff, Dixon was followed to the 9 a.m. service by about 20 members of the 200-member church and a number of other supporters. When she reached the church door, she was stopped by a senior member of the parish.

"I'm sorry, we're having a service," Barbara Sturman, head of the parish vestry, or governing board, told Dixon. "You won't be allowed in."

"I'm sorry you feel that way," Dixon replied, then marched to the church's outdoor pavilion and announced that she would hold services there instead.

While Edwards continued preaching to about 60 people inside the small red-brick building, Dixon and her followers created an altar out of a folding table and white tablecloth and began their own service over the vocal protests of some of Edwards' backers.

"There's plenty of people here who have nothing to do with this church," Stan Hupert, whose wife is a church member, said loudly as one of Dixon's supporters read from the Bible.

"This is a real good show you put on," Hupert said as other protesters began singing to try to drown out the reading.

Retired Bishop Ronald H. Haines, who helped Dixon preside over the outdoor service, told the crowd of about 100 people that "anytime we are seeking out the truth, there will be struggle."

Two Prince George's County police officers watched over the outdoor service. Little girls in summer dresses peered at television journalists preparing to deliver live reports from the latest standoff between the Episcopal Church's growing conservative movement and its more liberal members.

On both sides, church leaders and members say they regretted that the dispute turned into such an ugly, public confrontation. But neither side appeared willing to budge.

"I don't see how Bishop Dixon can back down on this," said Virginia Jameson, who grew up in Christ Church and became alarmed by its increasingly conservative stance. "It's like this one group is trying to take over all the church."

The Christ Church vestry has asked the conservative bishop of Fort Worth, Texas, the Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker, to oversee the church -- essentially rejecting Dixon as its official leader. When Iker's letter accepting that position was read inside the church, members gave a standing ovation.

Edwards, who presided over Mass yesterday in his white robes, said of the events: "I guess it goes right along with what I've perceived for some time -- that the age of Christendom is over."

He said that he will continue to preach at Christ Church, even though he could face disciplinary action from the Episcopal Church for disobeying the orders of his bishop.

Dixon said she would wait until a meeting scheduled Sunday with leaders of the Washington Diocese to determine the church's next steps. She plans to send an interim priest to Christ Church each Sunday until the dispute is resolved -- a move that many churchgoers said they would protest.

"The tragedy was the split," Dixon said, "which is what I have been working since December to avoid in every way I know how."

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