Court ousts Episcopal priest in Md.

Federal judge sides with acting bishop in Prince George's case

October 30, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Effectively ending a dispute that was a flash point for tensions between conservatives and liberals in the Episcopal Church, a federal judge ordered a priest yesterday to leave his Prince George's County parish and vacate the rectory he is occupying in defiance of the acting bishop of Washington.

In a ruling handed down in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Judge Peter J. Messitte sided with Bishop pro tem Jane H. Dixon, who filed suit in June seeking to oust the Rev. Samuel L. Edwards as rector of Christ Church, Accokeek.

Pointing to Edwards' writings that condemned the Episcopal Church as "the Unchurch" and "hellbound" because of its liberal policies toward gays and the ordination of women, Dixon refused to approve Edwards as rector of the 300-year-old parish.

Dixon, with the backing of national church leaders, argued that the Episcopal Church is governed by a hierarchy in which the bishop wields ultimate authority.

Messitte agreed. Dixon "is the highest ecclesiastical authority of the Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church," he wrote.

"Even if her decisions regarding the number of times she may visit, preach the Word, and give communion were arbitrary, they were the decisions for her, as Bishop to make," Messitte wrote. "The Court had and has no say in the matter."

Messitte granted Dixon's motion for summary judgment, immediately terminating Edwards' tenure, prohibiting him from officiating at parish services and ordering him and his family to vacate the rectory within 10 days.

"They pitched Father Edwards out," said Edwards' attorney, Charles H. Nalls. "We are very deeply disappointed. We'll meet among ourselves and see what the next step is."

An appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals is likely, Nalls said. He had argued that the dispute did not belong in a secular setting.

"It's a secular court deciding someone can't perform sacred duties," he said. "We were saying the thing had no business in secular court, that the court can't constitutionally intrude there. Obviously, the judge didn't agree."

Legal minefields

Michael Meyerson, professor of constitutional law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said such religious disputes are minefields for secular courts.

"One of the tenets of our [constitutionally guaranteed] separation of church and state is we don't want courts making determinations of religious doctrine. It's really quite unusual for a court to say, `Here's what church law is,'" Meyerson said.

But a judge can avoid that pitfall by looking at a church as a bureaucracy. In that way, it would be no different from looking at a corporation and defining the duties and authority of a chief executive or other officer.

"It would not be a religiously based decision, but a bureaucratically based decision," he said.

Dixon received widespread support in her effort to oust Edwards, including the endorsement of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA, the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold, and more than 60 bishops.

Edwards was backed by at least seven bishops.

The Rev. James Barney Hawkins IV, director of the doctor of ministry program at the Episcopal Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, said the principle of obedience to higher authority is at the essence of what it means to be Episcopal, which comes from the Latin word for oversight.

"I think it's one of the tensions Episcopalians live with, that we are not a parish-based church. We really are committed to a larger community and context, which is the diocese and finally the national church," Hawkins said.

Nalls said he was trying to contact Edwards late yesterday afternoon to inform him of the judge's decision. Edwards was in Illinois attending the annual assembly of Forward in Faith North America, an organization of conservative Episcopalians who oppose liberal trends in the church. He led that group before coming to Maryland.

Bishop's authority affirmed

The Rev. Canon R. Carter Echols, a spokesman for Dixon, called Messitte's decision "the ruling we'd hoped for.

"It reaffirmed the bishop's authority in her role as the highest authority in the diocese," Echols said. "The judge made it clear how we're all supposed to proceed from here."

The Accokeek dispute was a local battle that mirrored a national split in the Episcopal Church, which is the American branch of the Anglican Communion. In fact, tensions between liberals and conservatives over the role of gay men and women in church life beset all mainline Christian denominations.

At its heart, the dispute in Accokeek revolves around the interpretation of canon law, which governs church law.

In December the vestry, the lay governing board of Christ Church, hired Edwards, who was the executive director of the Fort Worth, Texas-based Forward in Faith North America and a leader among conservative Episcopalians.

Edwards and the vestry assert that Dixon failed to object to the priest's hiring within the 30 days required by canon law and was therefore powerless to remove him from the parish.

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