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Church links to African bishop

Sunday, September 27, 1998

By Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a groundbreaking move with serious implications for the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh has allowed an independent congregation that split from St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Sewickley to come under the care of an Anglican bishop in Uganda.

The two bishops and the congregation are critical of liberalism in the Episcopal Church's national leadership. The bishops intend the arrangement to bring Christ Church at Grove Farm, Ohio Township, into the worldwide Anglican communion without forcing it to join the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Robert Duncan of the Diocese of Pittsburgh acknowledged that he was taking a risk. But he hopes this step might later enable Christ Church to join the Episcopal Church.

"This was a way in which we could build up the Anglican communion by a generous act," he said. "It may prove to be going down the wrong road. But it is what I felt was best ... as we try to get through this very divided time."

While Bishop Wilson Turumanya of the Diocese of Bunyaro-Kitara will become the superior of one priest at the church, the congregation has not agreed to become part of the Anglican communion, said the Rev. Donald Wilson, minister of pastoral care at Christ Church.

The 2.5 million-member Episcopal Church is connected to the Church of England, whose adherents worldwide are called Anglicans. Many conservative Episcopalians feel a spiritual kinship with African Anglicans, who tend to be evangelical. Turumanya is a graduate of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge and visits Pittsburgh regularly.

The Rev. George Werner, dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Downtown, and a moderate leader in the denomination, said that Duncan "is trying very hard to use some new pastoral approaches to people who have been disenfranchised. We have to give him a chance to see how it works," he said.

But a spokesman for the Episcopal Church said the move violated the spirit of this summer's international Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops.

"It does raise interesting questions about pastoral oversight by a bishop who lives on another continent," said James Solheim. "We are testing boundaries here and Lambeth clearly spoke on boundaries."

The pastor of Christ Church is the Rev. John Guest, the former rector of St. Stephen's and an acclaimed evangelist currently preaching in Ghana. He resigned from St. Stephen's in 1990 to concentrate on evangelism.

When his successor died in 1994, many members wanted Guest back. But another priest was chosen, and about 200 people left to form what is now Christ Church at Grove Farm. Attendance now averages 650.

Although the Pittsburgh diocese is conservative, Christ Church's leaders were so unhappy with the national church that they never sought to form an Episcopal parish. But Guest and Wilson were allowed to keep their Episcopal clergy credentials.

"While the split was very painful for the leaders of St. Stephen's, they were determined to try to bless those who left, rather than curse them," Duncan said.

In accordance with Anglican tradition, Christ Church wanted a bishop for confirmation and ordination. But Duncan denied Guest's request to ordain a new priest for his staff because church law requires candidates to be Episcopal communicants in good standing. Guest then approached Turumanya, Duncan said.

At Lambeth, "Bishop Turumanya came to me immediately to ask whether I would bless this or not. It was my response that ... I would be glad for that development."

Votes at Lambeth showed that the Anglican communion is far more conservative than the Episcopal Church. Therefore, Duncan believes that the Episcopal Church will move back toward what he believes is its theologically conservative center. If that happens, he hopes Christ Church may elect to join the Episcopal fold.

"The first three years of a congregation's life generally determines the patterns for the rest of that congregation's life. It was my conviction that, if Christ Church wanted to be an Anglican congregation ... that it was urgent for them to have a bishop," he said.

"A relationship with one of our African brothers in an African diocese was the best course for them to eventually be in a position to appreciate what might come from their direct association with us here in the Diocese of Pittsburgh."

But the congregation's board has agreed only that Turumanya would ordain and oversee David Valencia -- a Chilean graduate of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry -- and form a "missionary" relationship with the Diocese of Bunyaro-Kitara, Wilson said. The affluent congregation can support the African diocese materially, while the Ugandans support Christ Church spiritually, he said.

This "doesn't mean that we are becoming an Anglican church. That is a decision that the whole congregation makes, and we haven't presented it to the whole congregation. ... We see ourselves as a non-denominational church," Wilson said.

But the written agreement between Turumanya and Guest is more profound in its implications, Duncan said. He quoted from the document, which Turumanya wrote:

"Although you and your congregation are governed by the bylaws of Christ Church at Grove Farm, you have assured me that you personally will work toward bringing Christ Church into the Anglican communion as soon as circumstances permit. I would hope that, as a result of our developing relationship, that you would consider my diocese as your Anglican home for the time being," the Ugandan bishop wrote.

"I am sure that we can establish a history-making arrangement between Christ Church and Bunyaro-Kitara, one that may point the way for other churches to remain within the worldwide Anglican fellowship without compromising their biblical beliefs."

For conservative Episcopalians, those "biblical beliefs" involve shifting sexual mores. But a deeper concern is that some Episcopal bishops, led by John Spong of Newark, have rejected basic beliefs on which Christianity was founded. Spong rejects theism, the belief in a personal God who lives outside creation. He calls the belief that Jesus is the incarnation of such a God "bankrupt."

Even moderate Episcopalians are troubled that other bishops have taken no collective action against Spong. But leaving the denomination is not an appropriate response, they say.

"One person's apostasy is not enough for me to somehow abandon the church rather than stay and try to be a powerful voice for orthodoxy," said the Rev. Guy Lytle, dean of the University of the South School of Theology in Sewanee, Tenn., an Episcopal seminary.

Solheim, director of news and information for the Episcopal Church, said that placing an American church under an African bishop "is not in the spirit of Lambeth."

This summer's once-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops reaffirmed a 1988 agreement to respect each other's diocesan boundaries, he said. However, that agreement appears to refer to invasion by an outside bishop against the wishes of the resident bishop.

The bishops acted in response to an Arkansas dispute that also involves an African bishop who graduated from the Ambridge seminary. As a priest, Bishop John Rucyahana of the Diocese of Shyira, Rwanda, ministered to workers at the crash site of USAir Flight 427.

In 1996 a group of Little Rock cathedral parishioners were unhappy with their new bishop's endorsement of same-sex relationships. They sought his permission to start a new, theologically conservative Episcopal parish. Bishop Larry Maze denied their request.

So they started an independent church but hired an Episcopal priest from South Carolina who then transferred his credentials to Rucyahana's diocese in Rwanda. This placed the priest and congregation outside the discipline of the Episcopal Church, while allowing them to remain Anglican.

The bishop of Arkansas wrote to the Rwandan bishop, asking him to send the South Carolina priest to a diocese whose bishop wanted outside help. "It is unacceptable, and a violation of canon law, that a priest remain uninvited and without license in this diocese," Maze wrote.

Rucyahana replied that he was "giving refuge" to the Arkansas congregation "in obedience to the Lord and my own conscience" because the group was "being forced out by the punitive measures of a revisionist bishop," he wrote in his reply.

"Be it made clear that those bishops ... who do not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, (that) his cross, death and resurrection was an act of God for our salvation, and do not believe in the authority of the Bible and its orthodox interpretation cannot claim the unity and respect for their territory. (We don't have any territorial obligation to the non-Christian religions.)"

Though the Pittsburgh arrangement is significantly different from the Little Rock case because the local bishop welcomed the African bishop, Duncan believes there are precedents for the arrangement with the African bishop.

When the Episcopal Church abolished parish boundaries 60 years ago, many people predicted chaos. But today "people seem to be better served by being in the congregation that better feeds them spiritually, not just the church that happens to be in their neighborhood," he said.

Jets may do to diocesan boundaries what automobiles did to parish boundaries, he said.

"There are dangers in it. But what we have chosen to do here is to attempt to be kingdom builders and not to be as concerned about which bishop is in charge. If I can't support a congregation, but there is another bishop who can, why wouldn't I give them a bishop who can bless them?"

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