LETTER FROM AMERICA
Edward Plowman describes a remarkable Sunday in Maryland
At 8.15 am, the narrow parking lot along a two-lane country road already is full. Beyond a low brick wall stands a historic red brick chapel. This is Christ Church, Accokeek. About 50 people are inside the church, singing and praying their way through the early communion service. Outside, reporters, cameramen, and members of the church’s vestry (governing board) are milling about. At one end of the parking lot, four county police officers chat nervously. The vestry has summoned them to maintain order and evict trespassers, if necessary.
Christ Church built this chapel in 1724, 26 years after a British monarch chartered the church. Gardens and an ancient cemetery flank the building. Generations of the church’s members are buried here. Tall black-bark hardwoods stand as sentinels over it all. This day the church needs all the guardians it can get. Liberal Suffragan Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, temporary head of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, has said she will come to the 9.00 am service to take charge of Christ Church and oust its rector, conservative priest Samuel Edwards.
Although the church’s vestry had followed denominational rules in calling him, she later found him not to be ‘duly qualified’, based on his writings and traditionalist beliefs, including his stand against women’s ordination. She rejected the call. But the vestry said she had overstepped time limits and Church law, and the Revd Edwards would stay.
The 9.00 service starts on time, with more than 100 people in the pews. The congregants stand and sing the processional hymn, ‘O Day of Radiant Gladness.’ Someone outside suddenly shouts, ‘She’s here.’ In the parking lot, people pile out of cars and vans. Dark-haired Bishop Dixon emerges from a tan SUV, assisted by her husband David, a Justice Department lawyer. She wears a crimson chimere and white rochet and carries a shepherd’s crook.
Vestry members invite her to join other worshippers inside. She informs them that she has come to conduct the service. Standing on the steps outside the main entrance, Senior Warden Barbara Sturman replies, ‘We can’t allow that.’ Then, says the bishop, she will conduct the service at a covered basketball pavilion out back. ‘We can’t allow that, either,’ Mrs Sturman says.
But Mrs. Dixon heads for the pavilion anyway. Her entourage of about 70 follows: diocesan officials, recently retired Washington bishop Ronald Haines, supporters from other parishes, former Christ Church members who dropped out years ago and now attend elsewhere. A few others are voting members of the church who aren’t necessarily opposed to Revd Edwards, but believe a bishop must be obeyed no matter the circumstances. Vestry members, reporters, and two police officers tag along.
Curiously, a different purple-vested bishop appears seemingly out of nowhere and melds into the crowd. He is Edward MacBurney, retired bishop of Quincy, a traditionalist-led diocese in Illinois. He carries a large envelope. Bishop Dixon and her aides came prepared. They set up a folding table as an altar at the center of the concrete-floor pavilion, position a keyboard into place, and break out candles, a cup, wine, and wafers. Two police officers move in behind her and, at the request of a vestryman, ask her to leave the premises. She refuses.
During the setup commotion, Bishop MacBurney stands in front of the table. He holds up a letter to catch the light and starts reading loudly. He is about to make Anglican history. The letter is from Bishop Jack Iker of Fort Worth, the recognized leader of the diminishing number of traditionalists and conservative Anglo-Catholics in the Episcopal Church. In it, he acknowledges a letter the vestry sent him on May 22, asking to be placed under his ‘episcopal oversight and protection’ .
He replies: ‘After a great deal of prayer and reflection, I have decided to agree to your request, effective immediately.’ He says Revd Edwards, ‘who has served as a priest in good standing under my oversight for the past eight years, will continue to serve as your duly called rector.’ This arrangement, he adds, ‘will continue for as long as the current circumstances make it necessary.’
It is the first time in centuries of Anglican history that a sitting bishop has crossed diocesan boundaries to provide such care without the consent of the local bishop.
Bishop MacBurney keeps reading. Bishop Dixon’s actions ‘appear to be contrary to the canons of the Episcopal Church’ and violate a 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution. The Lambeth resolution affirmed that both those who dissent from and assent to women’s ordination are loyal Anglicans. It called upon the provinces to provide episcopal ministry to all.
In effect, Bishop Iker has taken it on himself to implement Lambeth and a pastoral letter issued by the Episcopal bishops themselves following a meeting of Anglican primates in North Carolina in February.
Bishop Dixon doesn’t tell her audience she had been forewarned of the Iker intervention in telephone calls with Bishop Iker and Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold the preceding day. They had pleaded with her to find a peaceful solution to the impasse. Revd Edwards says she had agreed as late as Saturday noon to just sit peacefully in the service, and then changed her mind.
As the pavilion service gets underway, a heckler chides Bishop Dixon for holding a rump service and dividing the church. A man from another conservative church begins singing boisterously to drown out the bishop. Vestryman Frank McDonaugh again asks Mrs. Dixon to leave; her husband pushes him away. But things quiet down quickly, and the service proceeds. Bishop Haines preaches a short sermon. Bishop Dixon announces that she has appointed him to be priest-in-charge of Christ Church for the next 30 days.
Meanwhile, Bishop MacBurney goes into the chapel and at the end of the service there reads the Iker letter. The worshippers give it a standing ovation. It remains to be seen what will become of the Iker initiative. No canons address the issue, says canon law expert Charles Nalls, the vestry’s attorney. But the largely conservative Anglican world is watching. If liberal bishops attempt to punish Bishop Iker, the Episcopal Church could find itself under international censure.
Edward E Plowman is a staff writer of World Magazine, USA
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