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Theological strife splits Episcopal Church

Sunday, June 03, 2001

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ACCOKEEK, Md. -- The historic Christ Church in Accokeek, Md., was established on the Maryland peninsula in 1698, one of six parishes founded by the Church of England that predates the establishment of both the United States and the Episcopal Church.

The picturesque church sits 15 miles south of Washington, D.C., amid towering hardwoods that shade the surrounding centuries-old gravestones. It is a sedate setting, one better suited to picnics than police.

Until last Sunday.

While the Rev. Samuel L. Edwards conducted his regular service inside the church, Prince George County police were called to arrest his boss, Washington Bishop pro tempore Jane Holmes Dixon, who was conducting her own Eucharist service in a nearby pavilion. She had been barred by church members from entering the building, and they wanted her arrested for trespassing.

Police ultimately declined to arrest Dixon, and the uneasy confrontation at the church ended. But the unrest continues in the Washington Diocese and throughout the Episcopal Church, fueled by theological differences over the blessings of gay or lesbian unions, and ordaining women and openly gay priests.

The growing rift within the 2.4 million-member denomination is, according to some observers, as divisive as any in the church's 212-year history.

According to The Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church tome that provides the denomination's foundation for prayer and comportment, newly ordained priests promise to obey "with a glad mind and will, [the] godly admonitions and ... godly judgments" of their diocesan bishop.

But the reality today is that such blanket allegiance has become increasingly rare. In its place are priests who publicly rebuke their bishops, lock the doors of their churches and even sever their congregation's connection with the diocese.

On the other hand, some bishops have tried to engineer congregations' choices of rectors, in effect "forcing" them to hire priests whose theological leanings are in line with the bishop's.

The Episcopal Church is one of 37 self-governing provinces in the 70 million member Anglican Communion. It is commonly more liberal in its interpretation of Scripture than the vast majority of Anglicans. While it officially supports the ordination of women, at last summer's General Convention a resolution was passed affirming the church's recognition of "other lifelong committed relationships" outside of heterosexual marriages that may be characterized by such qualities as fidelity and holy love.

The resolution as it stands recognizes that not everyone in the church agrees with its traditional teaching on human sexuality. That traditional teaching, which is still the church's official position, is that the only appropriate relationship for sexual intimacy is heterosexual, monogamous marriage.

Edwards' theology is conservative. He doesn't believe in the ordination of women or openly gay priests. His work as executive director of Fort Worth, Texas-based Forward in Faith/North America, an organization of more than 150 parishes devoted to traditional Anglican theology, included writing columns for the magazine Foundations that called the Episcopal Church "the Unchurch," claimed it practiced "institutionalized lawlessness" and that the "machinery" of the church was "hell-bound."

Edwards had been interested in returning to parish work; still, the call from the church's search committee in October surprised him, he said during a recent interview in his church office. He was interested enough to interview twice in Accokeek, and on Dec. 13 the parish notified Dixon, who has been serving as bishop on a temporary basis since December, of its intention to hire Edwards.

Dixon and Edwards scheduled a meeting for January, but Edwards postponed it. On Feb. 6, he signed a contract to be the church's rector. On March 8, Dixon expressed her opposition to Edwards, 85 days after the parish first notified her of its intent. Under canon law of the Episcopal Church, a bishop has 30 days in which to withhold approval of a priest. Nevertheless, Dixon has called on Edwards to resign. He has refused.

To support her primary objection to Edwards, that he was "not fit" to be a rector, Dixon pointed out the priest's writings in Foundations.

Now, attorneys for both have weighed in, with Edwards' lawyer decrying the diocese's attempts to "demonize" the rector, while the diocese's attorney has said, "Father Edwards is not and will not be the rector of Christ Church."

Edwards, 46, a father of two, is bemused at the turmoil engulfing him and his 120-member church.

"My interest in coming here was to be a parish priest and build a Christian community," he said. "The truth is immutable.

"My assessment of the direction of the Episcopal Church as an institution has not changed. I thought it was on the wrong road and I still do."

Dixon declined several requests for an interview.

Both Edwards and Dixon have received support for their positions. Six prominent bishops, including Bishop Robert Duncan of the Pittsburgh Diocese, wrote letters supporting Edwards. In late May, 57 other bishops issued a statement of support for Dixon. Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold has backed Dixon from the beginning.

"The Episcopal Church and its Anglican forebears have always tolerated considerable more theological difference than many traditions," said John Kater, a professor of ministry development at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, an Episcopal seminary in Berkeley, Calif. "There have been rifts before, [but] we do seem to be in a period where the gap between points of view is particularly wide."

The Right Rev. Stephen Jecko, the bishop of Florida, wrote a letter to Dixon in April, asking her to engage a "generous orthodoxy" in her handling of the Accokeek situation.

In an interview, Jecko said that while the leadership of the Episcopal church "is at least morally bound" to allow different points of view about women's ordination, there is no debate about the validity of gay ordination.

"On that issue," Jecko said, "Scripture is clear. My belief is that you have a lot of clergy and bishops who have exceeded the line morally in terms of Scripture.

"It certainly seems like sides are being taken and lines are being drawn."

During the past 18 months, the same issues have led parishes in 15 states, including Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, California, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, to affiliate their congregations with the Anglican Mission in America, whose two bishops, including the Rev. John Rodgers of Ambridge, Pa., were consecrated as missionary bishops by the Anglican provinces of Rwanda and Southeast Asia.

The maneuver gave conservatives within the Episcopal Church a chance to establish or oversee congregations that follow more traditional Christian doctrines, but are located in liberal dioceses. Their work has been to create Anglican outposts in America. The consecrations of Rodgers and Murphy have not been recognized by the Episcopal Church, but it has no power to directly stop their work.

In the Pennsylvania Diocese, the fifth-largest in the country with 162 parishes, one Philadelphia-area church denied its sitting diocesan bishop the right to Holy Communion because of conflicting theological positions, and a second one, now called St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church, withdrew from the diocese in May and joined the Anglican Mission in America.

In response, the Right Rev. Charles E. Bennison, bishop of the Pennsylvania Diocese, ordered the congregation to vacate the church building by June 9, because leaving the Episcopal Church is "a threat to the system."

"They are breaking their ordination vows," Bennison said in an interview. "A person of orders can't do whatever he wants.

"You can follow your conscience, but you also have to suffer the consequences."

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