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Battling bishops

Religion | Theological dispute raises questions of authority in the Episcopal Church

Issue: "The Road to Damascus," Sept. 21, 2002

A long and bitter dispute between a liberal bishop and a traditionalist priest in the Philadelphia-area diocese of the Episcopal Church plunged the entire 2.3-million-member denomination into a constitutional crisis this month and sent shockwaves throughout the 70-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.

Things came to a head on Sept. 4 when Philadelphia-based Charles E. Bennison, bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, "deposed" (defrocked) traditionalist priest David Moyer for not allowing the bishop to preach or officiate at sacramental rites at the 200-member Church of the Good Shepherd in suburban Rosemont. Rev. Moyer branded the bishop's action "persecution" and "an offense to God."

Bishop Bennison acted counter to the advice and pleas of a number of fellow bishops, including Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, and even outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey. His own diocesan governing committee reportedly advised against it. But Episcopal bishops have absolute power in their dioceses, a centuries-old Anglican concept upheld most recently by a U.S. appeals court.

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By invoking a rarely used church law that applies to clergy who renounce the faith or engage in gross immorality, Bishop Bennison was able to take the action without allowing Rev. Moyer to have a church trial. He said Rev. Moyer's refusal to allow him to preach at Good Shepherd amounted to renunciation of the faith.

The priest and his lay leaders contend that it's the bishop himself who is guilty of renouncing the faith. They point to some of the bishop's public statements that indicate that he isn't a Christian. ("Because we [the church] wrote the Bible, we can rewrite it." "We should approve gay and lesbian marriage.") The bishop six months ago suspended Rev. Moyer and warned he would be removed from the priesthood if he didn't submit.

After Bishop Bennison lowered the boom, reaction came swiftly. Bishop Robert Duncan of the Diocese of Pittsburgh declared the Bennison action "utterly null and void, both legally and morally." He made Rev. Moyer a priest in the Pittsburgh diocese but assigned him to remain at the Rosemont church. The move shocked fellow bishops and church scholars; some scholars said church law doesn't support such intrusion onto another bishop's turf.

Archbishop of Canterbury Carey weighed in. He too declared the defrocking invalid and offered to make Rev. Moyer a priest in the Canterbury diocese-an unprecedented intervention that captured attention in the British press. Rev. Moyer's attorney filed a lawsuit against Bishop Bennison aimed at invalidating his act and accusing him of "fraud ... and denial of due process."

Rev. Moyer returned to the pulpit at Good Shepherd on Sept. 7, and an overflow crowd gave him a standing ovation. He said the conflict was not about personalities but about the truth of the gospel. He vowed to remain at Good Shepherd, where he has served as rector for 13 years.

Bishop Bennison is expected to turn to the civil courts to uphold his order. Any lawsuit, he says, is but "one step in a long process to make sure that no one takes that property out of the Episcopal Church." He questions the legitimacy of Bishop Duncan's and Archbishop Carey's actions but dismisses worries that his action will cause schism. The Episcopal Church is "almost unsplittable," he said.

The denomination's House of Bishops will attempt to sort out the mess at its November meeting.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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