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Religion | A liberal bishop attacks-and may hasten an Anglican breakup

Issue: "John Roberts: Bush's pick," July 30, 2005

One down, five to go.

At 9:30 a.m. on July 13 liberal Episcopal bishop Andrew Smith of Connecticut, several of his administrators, a pro-gay feminist priest, a locksmith, and a computer technician swooped into conservative, 200-congregant St. John's Episcopal Church in Bristol, Conn.

They pried open the locked pastor's office, confiscated pastoral and church records, took down the church's website and redirected traffic to the diocese's website, changed the locks on all the doors, and announced to protesting church leaders and members that the diocese had taken over St. John's. Bishop Smith said he had suspended Rev. Mark Hansen from ministry, and Rev. Susan McCone was now in charge.

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Rev. Hansen is one of the six priests in the state who said Bishop Smith was welcome to visit their churches but not to preach or administer the sacraments ("A good Friday," May 7). Because he had voted to approve the consecration of an openly homosexual bishop in the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), they asked him to appoint a theologically conservative bishop to provide alternate oversight for them, as ECUSA policy allows. When the bishop refused, the six churches began withholding dues from the diocese. In March, he suspended them from ministry, declaring they had "abandoned the communion." They rejected the charge and refused to budge.

Bishop Smith, through a spokeswoman, said he took the action against Rev. Hansen because he had gone on an authorized sabbatical and left St. John's with inadequate pastoral care and questionable finances. The priest, who holds a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and is teaching part-time elsewhere, said the bishop knew about the sabbatical, and the reasons for it: His son has expensive medical needs, is learning-disabled, and is enrolled in a private school. A supply priest was on hand Sundays, while another was on call during the week for emergencies, as was he, he noted.

He said the bishop had "misrepresented the facts," and the ouster had "devastated" him, his family, and the people at St. John's. (Under the suspension, the priest is forbidden to step foot on church property or communicate with the church members, and within six months he can be defrocked.) That night, Rev. Hansen met and prayed with several dozen parishioners. Under his ministry, St. John's membership had grown 15 years in a row, while many other parishes in the diocese had declined.

Bishop Smith's move against Rev. Hansen came after conservatives in the ECUSA and the Anglican Church of Canada won a major skirmish. It came at last month's meeting of the central administrative council of the worldwide Anglican Communion in England.

Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) members, meeting in Nottingham, narrowly voted 30 to 28, with four abstentions, to endorse an earlier move by the Communion's primates, or chief bishops. The primates had suspended the North American churches from participation in the ACC for refusing to "repent" for consecrating a noncelibate homosexual as a bishop (ECUSA) and approving same-sex blessings (the Canadian church).

The suspension will last until 2008, when all the bishops in the Communion's 38 national churches gather at the every-10-years Lambeth conference. The last Lambeth ruled overwhelmingly that homosexual practice is "incompatible with Scripture." Nottingham reaffirmed that position, so if the North American churches refuse to repent by 2008, they probably will be expelled from the entire Communion. Conservatives might then replace the two churches as the officially recognized Anglican presence in North America.

William Witt, a St. John's member who holds a Ph.D. in theology from Notre Dame and witnessed the July 13 takeover, said Bishop Smith's actions are part of this bigger picture: "We are loyal Anglicans, and the Anglican Communion has made clear that it will support us. . . . ECUSA is choosing to walk away from that communion, and Bishop Smith has today helped to hasten its breakup."

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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