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Liberal intolerance

National | An Episcopal bishop tries to oust a priest who calls for a return to biblical orthodoxy

Issue: "Power struggle," May 26, 2001

Ground Zero in the theological and cultural war going on in the Episcopal Church has shifted to historic little Christ Church (founded 1698) in Accokeek, Md., near Washington, D.C.

Suffragan (assistant) Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, 64, temporary head of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., gave an order to the church's vestry (governing board): Remove scholarly conservative priest Samuel Edwards, 46, from the pulpit by May 25. If the vestry fails to comply, she warned, she will come to church on May 27 to take charge, declare the position of rector (pastor) vacant, and appoint a priest to conduct services.

However, the vestry members vowed they will not permit her to do that, and their position seems to be supported by the vast majority of the congregation's 130 regular attendees. "Regardless of what Mrs. Dixon says, we have a lawfully called rector, Father Samuel Edwards, and he will continue to lead this parish," Senior Warden (board chairman) Barbara Sturman, 42, told WORLD. Some leaders on both sides say the dispute appears headed to the civil courts.

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It all began last December when the vestry, without a rector for nearly three years, chose Rev. Edwards to fill the post. The priest fit the profile the vestry wanted: a family man and a good Bible teacher committed to traditional doctrines and values.

But the soft-spoken Rev. Edwards was no garden-variety traditionalist. For the past seven years he had been executive director of the Fort Worth-based Forward in Faith/North America movement. FIF is an alliance of conservative/traditionalist clergy and churches in the liberal-leaning 2.3-million-member denomination. Its members refuse to recognize the ordination of women, approved by the church in 1976. They oppose the widening embrace of the homosexual agenda in the church.

In his speeches and writings, Rev. Edwards surgically critiqued liberal trends in the church and appealed for a return to biblical orthodoxy. He also cautioned that if reform fails, faithful Christians must confront the possibility of having to leave the denomination. Rev. Edwards became available for parish ministry when FIF ran out of cash last year; he stepped down as part of the downsizing.

For Mrs. Sturman and the vestry, the matter is one of church law. The vestry followed the calling procedure precisely, she insists. Bishops are given a 30-day period in which to veto a call if a candidate is found not to be "duly qualified." Such vetoes rarely are invoked. Hearing no objection from the diocese within the prescribed time, the vestry in mid-January signed Rev. Edwards to a three-year contract.

But Bishop Dixon, at the behest of fellow liberals, began reading some of Rev. Edwards's writings in February. She summoned him to an interview at diocesan headquarters Feb. 26. Nine days later, she informed him by phone that he was unacceptable as a priest in her diocese. She asked him to withdraw his candidacy. Already in the throes of moving his family to Accokeek, he referred her to the vestry.

On March 8, Bishop Dixon sent a letter to Mrs. Sturman, notifying the vestry of her rejection of Rev. Edwards. She complained he would give her only "limited" obedience as bishop, and he was a schismatic who likely would lead Christ Church out of the denomination. (Asked during the interview whether he could accept her as bishop, Rev. Edwards had replied he would accept her administrative authority but not her "sacramental" role; he could not receive communion from her.)

As for the 30-day review period, Bishop Dixon dismissed it as not applicable in this case, a point church lawyers on both sides now are debating. The bishop also sent overnight mail to church members who had stopped attending years ago, soliciting their support-and creating dissension.

On Rev. Edwards's first Sunday in Accokeek, March 18, congregants and visitors-some of them hostile-grilled him for two hours in a Q-and-A forum. When it ended, they gave him an ovation.

Seven conservative bishops have written to Bishop Dixon, imploring her to back off and raising the specter of ecclesiastical charges being lodged against her. Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, spoke with Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Bishop Dixon late last month. He urged them to find a way to cool it to help keep peace in Anglican ranks.

Traditionalist bishop Paul Marshall of Bethlehem, Pa., weighed in early this month with a message for Bishop Dixon and her liberal backers: "Inclusivity is meant to work both ways."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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