Standoff at Pa. parish reflects Episcopal rift

Traditionalist rector risks being deposed if he refuses to abide by church law

August 20, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - A Gothic stone parish in the heart of the city's aristocratic Main Line has become the latest battleground for the soul of the Episcopal Church.

Since March, the Rev. David L. Moyer, rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, has not donned his priestly vestments to celebrate Mass, has not preached, has not baptized, married or buried.

Instead, he sits each Sunday in a pew with his wife and the rest of the congregation as one of his two assistants presides.

"It's been emotionally distressing," Moyer said.

A traditionalist who opposes the Episcopal Church's ordination of women and liberal policies on homosexuality, Moyer has been "inhibited," a kind of six-month suspension, for refusing to allow his bishop to visit his church and preach from his pulpit. Moyer considers the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Bennison Jr., the bishop of Pennsylvania, a heretic.

"Scripture is very clear: If anyone comes to you bringing a false teaching, do not receive him," said Moyer, puffing on a pipe in a parlor of the 19th- century church. "Have nothing to do with him."

Unless Moyer relents, he has only a few weeks left as an Episcopal priest. Bennison has vowed to "depose" the unrepentant priest, effectively defrocking him, Sept. 4. The dispute has already headed to civil court.

Bennison said he felt compelled to act after he learned in January that Moyer will probably be nominated as a candidate for bishop this week by a traditionalist group, a move Bennison called "clearly schismatic."

The clash in Rosemont is a microcosm of a cultural and theological war raging in many mainline Protestant denominations, but is particularly pitched in the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion. Maryland had its own episode when the Southern Maryland parish of Christ Church in Accokeek unsuccessfully tried last year to hire a traditionalist rector, the leader of an Episcopal parish, over the objections of the acting bishop of Washington. In that case, a federal judge upheld the bishop's authority to remove the Rev. Samuel Edwards.

Conservative rectors have been leaving the Episcopal Church, in some cases taking their congregations with them, leading to fierce legal battles over parish property. Dozens of traditionalist churches have bolted, forming the Anglican Mission in America, which has ordained six of its own bishops. Those ordinations have been denounced as irregular and invalid by the archbishop of Canterbury.

The clash is a pattern that has recurred throughout the history of Anglicanism, said Diana Butler Bass, author of Strength for the Journey, a history of the past 20 years in the Episcopal Church.

"There's always been a tension with how far Anglicans are going to adapt to mainstream culture and liberalism," said Bass, who teaches at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. "There is a tiny minority who want to hold onto an understanding of what they believe to be the true tradition or orthodoxy."

It is in this context of acrimony that Bennison decided he'd had enough.

"Father Moyer's behavior has clearly constituted a breach of the Discipline of the Church, disobedience of his ordination vows, and his abandonment of Communion," the bishop stated in a pastoral letter every parish in the diocese was required to read at services this month. It was not read at Good Shepherd.

Moyer has clashed with Bennison, and his two predecessors, for more than a decade. He has refused to present candidates to the bishop for confirmation, the rite of Christian commitment usually performed with adolescents, as required by church law. Two years ago, Moyer invited sympathetic bishops from South America, Congo and elsewhere to perform the ritual, a clear breach of Episcopal church law.

Moyer said his dispute with Bennison goes beyond the particular issues of homosexuality and women's ordination. He questions whether Bennison believes in such fundamentals of faith as the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the inerrancy of the Bible, and will permit him to visit only if he can affirm them.

"I mean, these are Sunday school questions," Moyer said.

Bennison said he is happy to sit down with Moyer, or any parishioner at Good Shepherd, and compare theological viewpoints. But he said that cannot be a basis for barring him, as bishop, from the parish.

"The mistake he makes is to think that theological assent or consensus is the basis of unity," Bennison said.

The confrontation came to a head this year when a traditionalist group indicated its intention to nominate Moyer as a "flying bishop," who would minister to conservative Episcopal parishes throughout the country that refuse to recognize their liberal bishops.

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