Failing to uphold the decision of Episcopal acting Bishop Jane H. Dixon of Washington to bar a conservative priest from becoming rector of a Prince George's County parish could undermine church governance, an attorney for the bishop told a federal judge yesterday.
But a lawyer for the Rev. Samuel L. Edwards argued that the dispute between the diocese and Christ Church in Accokeek belongs in a church tribunal, where both sides are facing ecclesiastical charges, not in a federal court.
Christ Church "is an Episcopal parish that's been rent asunder," Charles H. Nalls, Edwards' attorney, said during a motions hearing in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. "We don't believe it should be here in this court."
Dixon, who is serving as acting bishop until the diocese elects a successor to retired Bishop Ronald H. Haines in January, filed suit in June seeking to oust Edwards and regain control of Christ Church. Noting Edwards' writings, which condemned the Episcopal church as the "Unchurch" and "hellbound" because of its liberal policies toward gay members and the ordination of women, Dixon has refused to grant him a license to serve as rector of the 300-year- old parish.
Edwards and the church vestry, the lay governing board that hired him in December, assert Dixon missed her opportunity to remove the priest because she failed to act within the 30 days mandated in church law, a legal interpretation Dixon rejects.
In May, Dixon was turned away at the church doors when she arrived to celebrate the Eucharist. Since then, a portion of the congregation that supports her has met for services off church grounds, while Edwards, defying Dixon, has continued to preside at Christ Church.
In the suit, Dixon is asking that her refusal to accept Edwards as rector be upheld and that she be allowed access to the parish, which has threatened to press trespassing charges if she enters the property.
Property ownership is in dispute. The parish claims ownership because it was established before the diocese; the diocese says the parish turned over the property when it joined the diocese. Dixon has the support of 70 bishops, and more than 100 clergy in the diocese have signed a statement of support. Edwards also has supporters nationally, including at least six bishops.
"What they're trying to do is to exert squatter's rights," said David M. Schnorrenberg, who represents Dixon.
He argued that the court's authority was limited to three issues: "To identify the decision maker, to identify the decision and to enforcing the decision."
Schnorrenberg said Dixon had the right to enforce her decision because the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical one, in which ultimate authority in a diocese resides in the bishop. To find otherwise, he said, would be to transform Episcopal polity into a congregational model, a more decentralized form of church governance.
"It would be completely unprecedented if the judge rules in favor of Edwards," Schnorrenberg said after the hearing.
But Nalls argued that the judge should let the church consider the ecclesiastical charges that have been filed against Dixon and Edwards. If upheld, the charges could result in a church trial, and either or both could be admonished, suspended or defrocked.
"If the court injects itself into the process, it supplants the court's judgment for that of the ecclesiastical tribunal," Nalls said. "Our point to Your Honor is we need to step back and let it work its way through."
District Judge Peter J. Messitte will rule in the next few weeks.