Church service attempts healing

Factions resume worship together after months apart

November 05, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

ACCOKEEK - An Episcopal church in Prince George's County that has been locked in a bitter dispute over the fate of its conservative priest took a step toward reconciliation yesterday, but parishioners on both sides said the mood remained tense despite the effort at healing.

Supporters of the Rev. Samuel L. Edwards - who was ordered last week by a federal judge to leave his post as rector of Christ Church in Accokeek - were joined by those who favor his ouster for the first time in more than five months at the hourlong service.

The two camps had been holding separate services since May, when Edwards defied an order from the acting bishop of Washington, Jane Holmes Dixon, to cease ministering there. Dixon has said Edwards is unfit to serve because of his conservative views, including his claim that the Episcopal church is "hellbound."

Outside the church, parishioner George Hanssen, who opposes Edwards and has been attending the separate service off church grounds, described the mood of the 300-year-old parish as tense but said it was good to be back.

He estimated that about 60 of his self-described fellow "exiles" returned yesterday.

"I think it's great that we are getting a reconciliation, that we have a chance to make it work," said Hanssen, an Accokeek resident who has been a Christ Church member since 1965. "It's going to be a long process, there's no doubt about it."

Speaking on Edwards' behalf after the service were supporters such as Chuck Clagett, a former member of the parish vestry, its lay governing body, who helped bring Edwards to Christ Church.

Clagett said last week's ruling by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte - which affirmed Dixon's rejection of Edwards as rector and directed him to vacate the rectory within 10 days - "infringes on our Bill of Rights."

"I think they're trying to take away our rights," he said.

Ordering Edwards to move out of the rectory, where he lives with his wife and children, by Wednesday was "cruel," Clagett said.

Albert Wesley Courtney Jr., a member of the vestry, said Edwards has done nothing but hold views that are different from those of Dixon. Of yesterday's service, he said: "It hasn't done anything to pull us together."

Edwards, who attended services yesterday elsewhere with his family, has filed a notice of appeal and asked for an immediate stay of the court order, though he has said he will not defy civil authority.

Charles Nalls, attorney for Edwards and the Christ Church vestry, described the atmosphere inside the church as one of "profound sadness for many of the parishioners here."

"It was an edifying morning, but certainly it was not a morning for great celebration," he said.

The service was conducted by Bishop A. Theodore Eastman, the retired bishop of Maryland, who went to Accokeek at Dixon's request. In a show of solidarity, Eastman was joined at the altar by the Rev. Steven Arpee, a priest from the Diocese of Washington who has been asked by the Christ Church vestry to serve as interim rector.

During his sermon, Eastman used Scripture to preach about overcoming alienation and promoting healing.

"Jesus is passing through Accokeek and the Diocese of Washington right now, early in the 21st century," he said. "He knows all of us by name, all of us near and far, who are connected in any way with the controversy here. He knows our anger and our pain and our alienation."

Speaking after the service, which was attended by more than 150 people, Eastman said he is optimistic about bringing the parish together.

"It's a little tense, sure," he said. "This is tough. We'll see it through. ... I'm always optimistic. A Christian, by definition, is optimistic."

Canon R. Carter Echols, a spokeswoman for Dixon, said the diocese intends to work with the parish.

"The plan for reconciliation is just gently unfolding here," she said. "Reconciliation work is hard. This is not simple stuff. Our plan is to work together."

But Clagett said yesterday's sermon did not make him feel better.

"I didn't even really half listen to it," he said. "Basically, you have people who are dressing up in cloaks and are in disguise to push their political and social agendas on all of us."

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