Episcopal bishop sues to regain control of parish

Dispute in Accokeek illustrates growing rift within denomination

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

Unable to resolve a dispute with a dissident conservative priest through church channels, the acting bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington has gone to federal court seeking an injunction to regain control of a Prince George's County parish.

Bishop Jane H. Dixon filed suit Monday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, asking that a federal judge prohibit the Rev. Samuel L. Edwards from officiating at Christ Episcopal Church in Accokeek. Dixon also is asking the court to order the vestry, the lay body that runs the 120-member church, to allow her to visit and minister at the parish.

The dispute in Accokeek is part of a larger crisis in the Episcopal Church between liberals and traditionalists, who oppose the ordination of women and what they perceive as an increasingly permissive stance toward homosexuals.

Last weekend in Denver, conservative Anglican prelates from Rwanda and Southeast Asia ordained four Episcopal priests to serve as missionary bishops for American traditionalists. The traditionalists are part of the Anglican Mission in America, a year-old movement of 37 breakaway conservative Episcopal parishes.

The archbishop of Canterbury and the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church condemned the ordinations as a violation of church polity.

It is such a schism that Dixon says she fears for Christ Church in Accokeek, despite the fact that Edwards has said he does not intend to lead the parish out of the Episcopal Church. (He has condemned the Episcopal Church as an "Unchurch" that is "hellbound.")

Dixon has refused to confirm Edwards as rector of the 300-year- old church.

The vestry is standing fast in its belief that it has the right to hire the pastor it wishes and that Dixon failed to object within the 30-day window mandated by canon law. Dixon countered that she merely had to begin her review within a month of Edwards' arrival and as bishop retains the right to confirm or deny his appointment as rector.

Dixon has the support of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, as well as 63 Episcopal bishops and more than 100 members of the diocesan clergy. Edwards has received the backing of at least seven bishops.

The dispute between Dixon and Edwards came to a head last month when the bishop went to Christ Church to preside over Sunday services. She was turned away at the door and parish officials threatened to charge her with trespassing.

Dixon conducted a service on an outdoor basketball court. Since then, Edwards has conducted the Sunday service at Christ Church, while a priest loyal to Dixon has presided at another service at a nearby community center.

Dixon said Edwards and the vestry of Christ Church left her no alternative but to sue. The issue, diocesan officials said, is that Edwards, by not obeying Dixon's directives, is violating canon law.

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