Episcopal priest plans appeal of his removal

Validity of court order is questioned in Prince George's case

October 31, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As Episcopal church members prepared to confront their bishop over the ouster of their priest, the priest's attorney said yesterday that he will appeal the federal court order removing the cleric from his Prince George's County parish.

Charles H. Nalls, attorney for the Rev. Samuel L. Edwards, said he will challenge the constitutional basis of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte, who Monday ordered Edwards to end his ministry at Christ Church, Accokeek and to vacate within 10 days the rectory where the priest, his wife and two children live.

Nalls said he would file a notice of appeal and a motion for a stay of judgment before Messitte this week. If the judge denies the motion, the appeal will go to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va.

Ruling called `inaccurate'

"Obviously, we think this decision is inaccurate on a number of levels, and we see major constitutional problems with it," Nalls said.

Nalls said Edwards was traveling and unavailable for comment.

While Nalls organized the appeal, diocesan officials announced yesterday that Jane Holmes Dixon, bishop pro tempore of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, plans to meet today with Barbara Sturman, senior warden of Christ Church, at the bishop's office in Washington.

Among the subjects up for discussion is who will celebrate the Eucharist at the Accokeek parish Sunday morning.

Canon R. Carter Echols, a spokeswoman for Dixon, said the bishop wants to make the decision in consultation with the church vestry. "What we want to model is trying to move forward together," she said.

Asked how the diocese would enforce the judge's order, Echols said, "We're trusting everyone is going to live by it. We're operating as if that's how we're all going to be."

Dixon's attorney, David M. Schnorrenberg, said he expected Edwards and the Christ Church vestry to obey the court order. "To disobey a federal court order is a serious thing to do. I can't imagine they'd do that," he said. Ultimately, the order could be enforced by federal marshals.

Sturman, who as senior warden is the ranking layperson in the parish, said she and her fellow parishioners who supported Edwards will have to overcome much lingering animosity toward the bishop.

"I'm civil to her, and I'm respectful, but I don't agree with her theology, and I never have," Sturman said. "But I can be in the same room with her."

Sturman said she has no plans to leave the parish but can't speak for anyone else. "I'm not exactly sure what is going to happen now," she said. "We're going to meet with the bishop. We're consulting with our lawyer."

The judge's decision was a defeat but something of a relief, she said.

"He didn't see anything our way at all, and I'm surprised at that," Sturman said. "At least, I'm glad there's a ruling. At least, we have a starting point we can work from."

Judge sided with bishop

Messitte ruled that Dixon correctly exercised her authority when she rejected Edwards as rector of the 300-year-old parish.

The vestry hired Edwards in December. He and the vestry have contended that church law stipulates Dixon should have acted within 30 days of his hiring if she wanted to exclude him as rector.

Edwards has been a leader among Episcopal conservatives and has denounced the church in his writings as "hellbound" and the "Unchurch" for its policies toward women and gays.

Dixon has maintained that church law states only that she must begin her review of a prospective rector within 30 days. In March, Dixon informed Edwards that she would not approve him as rector and told him to leave the parish by May 25.

Edwards remained at the parish, prompting the bishop to take the unusual step of filing suit in federal court to regain control of the parish.

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