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June 2, 2001
Column #1031

EPISCOPAL BISHOP CONFRONTS ORTHODOX CHURCH 

     ACCOKEEK, MD -- Christ Church has quietly thrived in this rural town since 1698. Yet it was the scene of an astonishing confrontation last Sunday between acting Episcopal Bishop Jane Dixon and the unanimous opposition of the leaders of Christ Church.

     Wearing dazzling red and white robes and carrying a shepherd's crook, she strode up the brick pathway past ancient tombstones to conduct the 9 a.m. service, which had already begun inside led by Rev. Sam Edwards. He had been appointed Rector (pastor) over her objection, partly because he opposes female ordination. At the door, she was invited ''to worship with us,'' by Barbara Sturman, senior warden, the top lay leader.

     Dixon said she wanted to fulfill her canonical right to conduct a worship service. ''You cannot officiate or disrupt the service,'' said Sturman. Dixon glanced at two men blocking the door, and suddenly marched over the grass, past a rose garden, down a hill to a basketball court. Someone unfolded a card table, produced four votive candles, some wine and communion hosts. She announced, ''I am here to celebrate Mass.''

     Stan Hubert, a regular attender, shouted: ''We are in a basketball court. This is dividing the church. We have a service going on in the church. I don't see why you are starting a service.''  The bishop firmly replied, ''We will worship here.'' 

     Suddenly, a retired Episcopal bishop, Edward MacBurney, wearing a scarlet shirt stepped forward to read a statement from Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker, who wrote he was responding to the church's letter of May 22 that asked for his ''Episcopal oversight and protection.'' He agreed to the request ''effective immediately,'' and said Rev. Edwards, ''will continue to serve as Rector.''

     ''I am taking this step'' because Bishop Dixon, ''in refusing to accept your Vestry's call of Fr. Edwards as your Rector, is denying you that `sustained pastoral care''' promised by the world's Anglican ''primates'' or archbishops of 28 provinces. Iker cited a resolution adopted by the primates in 1998 which ''calls upon the provinces of the Communion to affirm that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women...are both loyal Anglicans.''

     Raising his voice, Bishop MacBurney underscored this point: ''The failure in Washington to find a way to respect recognized theological positions shared by many throughout the Anglican Communion is in danger of breaking the peace and unity of the Church, and is depriving you of necessary pastoral care. This I pray may now be rectified by my intervention.''

     It was the first time in many centuries that a bishop of one diocese interfered with another in the oversight of local churches. Dixon countered by inviting Washington's retired Bishop Ronald Haines to serve as ''interim Rector.'' 

     Ironically, the text of Scripture appointed for the day, was John 17 of Jesus praying on the night before he died that his followers ''may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.'' 

     The parish maintains that since Dixon did not object to Edwards' appointment within 30 days, that she relinquished her right to intervene. She countered with a list of 57 bishops who argue she is exercising her ''canonical authority appropriately'' and charged that Edwards' ''agenda'' is to ''lead Christ Church out'' of the Episcopal Church.

     What lies behind this clash is far more than a disagreement over the ordination of women. The Episcopal Church has overturned a 2000 year Christian position that marriage is the sole appropriate place for sexual behavior.

     At its triennial General Convention last July, the church voted that both heterosexual and homosexual couples ''living in life-long committed relationships'' could have a ''holy love which enables those in such relationships to see in each other the image of God.'' It even asserted ''such relationships will be characterized by fidelity, monogamy...'' when massive independent research supports the opposite conclusion. And many dioceses are ordaining gays and lesbians.

     Traditional Christians are fleeing. The number of Episcopalians has shrunk from a peak of 3.4 million in 1965 to 2.4 million. 

     This week St. John's Episcopal Church in Huntington Valley, PA, became the 36thcongregation in nine months to join a new ''Anglican Mission in America'' created by Asian and African archbishops. It offered to pay $1 million for the property but was turned down by the local bishop, though he originally had proposed it.

     The confrontation and erosion will only grow with time, alas.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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