Priest to obey court order barring him

Conservative cleric, family must leave Accokeek church

Rift with Episcopal bishop

Rector's lawyer files appeal, request for stay of federal ruling

November 03, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

ACCOKEEK - A conservative Episcopal priest who has been serving as rector of a Prince George's County parish in defiance of a bishop's attempts to oust him said yesterday that he will obey a federal court order barring him from the church while he seeks to have the ruling overturned on appeal.

The Rev. Samuel L. Edwards, 47, speaking in front of the white-clapboard rectory because he is barred from the grounds of the adjacent Christ Church in Accokeek, said that he defied the acting bishop of Washington, but will not defy civil authority.

"There is within Christian tradition a longstanding principle that we are to be obedient to higher authority," he said.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte issued an order ending Edwards' ministry at the parish and directing him to vacate the church rectory, where he is living with his wife and two children, within 10 days.

Messitte ruled that Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, acting bishop of Washington, correctly exercised her authority when she rejected Edwards as rector of the parish.

Charles H. Nalls, attorney for Edwards and the Christ Church vestry, the parish's lay governing body, said he filed a notice of appeal and a request for immediate stay of the court order with Messitte yesterday. Nalls plans to argue that the judge incorrectly intervened in an internal church matter in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

If Messitte does not grant a stay by Wednesday, Edwards will have to leave the rectory.

"If we do not have a stay, we don't feel we have a choice," Nalls said. "The alternative is to have federal marshals put this priest and his family on the street."

Edwards admitted that the suddenness of his ordered departure stunned him.

"It's a tight spot," he said. "I seriously doubt that anyone apart from a Franciscan friar could be prepared to pull up stakes and move in 10 days."

Edwards was immediately barred by Messitte's order from conducting services at Christ Church. A white paper sign on the church door informed parishioners that daily services have been canceled until further notice.

On Sunday, services at Christ Church will be conducted by Bishop A. Theodore Eastman, the retired bishop of Maryland, who is going to Accokeek at the request of Dixon, said her spokeswoman, Canon R. Carter Echols.

Sturman said the parish has hired an interim rector, the Rev. Steven Arpee, a priest from the Diocese of Washington who has been worshipping at Christ Church for the past eight months.

Edwards said he would most likely not attend services at Christ Church tomorrow, not even sitting in the congregation. "I do not wish to become by my presence a source of any more disunity than is already going to be evidenced," he said.

The dispute in Accokeek is a war of wills with both sides using church law as ammunition. In December, the vestry 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.

Dixon contended that she merely had to begin her review of Edwards within 30 days and as bishop retained the right to confirm or deny his appointment.

The dispute escalated in May when Dixon was turned away at the church doors when she arrived to preside at services. Many conservative Episcopalians, including Edwards, oppose the ordination of women and refuse to participate in services in which female bishops or priests preside.

Since then, some of the 200 members of the congregation who support Dixon have met for services off church grounds; Edwards, defying Dixon, has continued to preside at Christ Church. Dixon was threatened with arrest for trespassing if she returned to the parish.

In July, ecclesiastical charges were filed against both Dixon and Edwards. That triggered internal church investigations of their conduct, which could have resulted in trials and sanctions, including expulsion from the ministry.

Last month, an investigating committee unanimously dismissed the charges against Dixon. The charges against Edwards are pending.

Edwards, who once said he wanted to end his career at Christ Church, said yesterday that he did not know what he would do if he lost his appeal.

Previously he had stated that despite his differences with Episcopal Church leadership, he did not wish to leave the church. But he declined to affirm that intention yesterday.

"I am not prepared to answer that question at this time," he said.

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