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Tale of two bishops

National | RELIGION: Anglicans battle "heavy-handed" autocrats and their locksmiths

Issue: "Arafat: The devil you know," Sept. 20, 2003

Under court order, liberal Episcopal bishop Charles Bennison reluctantly handed over two damaging letters Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold wrote him. Their leaked publication this month shook Bishop Bennison's Philadelphia-area diocese, calling into question his credibility and motives.

The case involves scholarly priest David Moyer, 52, a national leader of traditionalist Episcopalians opposed to women's ordination, and his 450-member Church of the Good Shepherd in suburban Rosemont. The bishop has pressed hard for years to force conservative parishes and clergy to submit to his authority, matters of conscience notwithstanding. But Rev. Moyer and the church's vestry (governing board) refused to allow him to preach or preside at any services unless he repented of unbiblical teachings. The church also withheld payments to the diocese.

The bishop defrocked Rev. Moyer a year ago on grounds he had left the Episcopal Church and ordered him out of the pulpit-grounds that even many liberals in the denomination dismissed as silly. He earlier had suspended the priest from pastoral duties. The actions outraged conservative Anglican leaders around the world, and the Anglican archbishop of Central Africa took Rev. Moyer and his parish under temporary protective covering.

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Still in the pulpit, Rev. Moyer has filed two lawsuits against Bishop Bennison, accusing him of fraud and interfering with his employment. The Griswold letters surfaced during pre-trial legal proceedings. They urged Bishop Bennison to back off. Journalist David Virtue obtained copies of the bombshell letters and posted them on the Internet (virtuosityonline.org).

"Are you looking to prevail at all costs?" Bishop Griswold asked after Bishop Bennison initially suspended Rev. Moyer in 2001. "I ask you ... in the strongest possible terms not to proceed in such a direction." He warned that defrocking Rev. Moyer and removing him as rector (pastor) would appear "heavy-handed, autocratic, and monumentally unpastoral" to Anglicans around the world, the majority of them conservative. Seek "other avenues of admonition or discipline instead," he cautioned.

In June 2002, Bishop Griswold again wrote, saying that Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey was unhappy with Bishop Bennison's actions in what had become "a serious international problem that demands some graceful solution." With Archbishop Carey threatening to go public with his displeasure, Bishop Griswold insisted Bishop Bennison must seek a conciliatory, nonsacramental visit to Good Shepherd and enlist another [conservative] bishop to offer "supplemental pastoral care" for the church, as Good Shepherd had sought and as is practiced in some other liberal-run dioceses.

"Failing this next step toward resolution on your part, I will have no recourse but to make a public statement in which, sadly, I shall not be able to defend your action and position on this matter," Bishop Griswold warned. He said he didn't want to see the Philadelphia bishop or the denomination portrayed as "unyielding and insensitive."

It was an empty threat. Bishop Griswold issued no such statement after Bishop Bennison went ahead, defrocked Rev. Moyer, and banned him from Good Shepherd. Nevertheless, with release of the letters, Bishop Bennison stood rebuked and discredited.

Following disclosure of the Griswold letters, Rev. Moyer said he had learned that Bishop Bennison had not shown them to the diocesan Standing Committee (governing board). And The Philadelphia Inquirer discovered he had not shown them to a reconciliation committee the bishop had appointed to help seek a solution.

Bishop Bennison and his executive assistant did not return WORLD's calls seeking comment.

If Bishop Bennison has an equal in Canada, it's likely Bishop Michael Ingham of the Vancouver-area diocese of New Westminster in the Anglican Church of Canada. He dispatched a diocesan official and a locksmith on Sept. 7 to change the locks on the doors at St. Martin's Anglican Church. Parish leaders prevented them from acting. At the first Sunday worship service the following day, two diocesan leaders showed up and announced the diocese had removed the parish's elected leaders under a rarely used church law, and was assuming immediate control of the church.

St. Martin's is one of nine conservative parishes in the diocese that rejected Bishop Ingham's leadership after the bishop this year authorized a liturgy for same-sex unions-a first anywhere in the Anglican world. The nine have formed the Anglican Communion of New Westminster under the "alternate" spiritual oversight of Terry Buckle, the conservative bishop of Yukon.

That same weekend, in a show of support for the nine, some conservative Anglican and Episcopal bishops and other notables from around the world rallied in a Vancouver meeting led by Bishop Buckle.

St. Martin's appeared to be Bishop Ingham's reply.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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