- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Secular courts have no business ruling on church law, nor can they bar a minister from his pulpit, says the attorney for a tiny church in Prince George's County being sued by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

"The courts do not have the authority to prohibit anyone from preaching," says Charles H. Nalls of deKieffer and Horgan in Washington. "There are some constitutional issues here."

The diocese has filed a federal lawsuit to stop the Rev. Samuel Edwards, rector of Christ Church in Accokeek, from officiating at the parish.

In the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, the Rt. Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon, acting bishop of Washington, asks the court to eject Mr. Edwards from the parish and invalidate his three-year contract with the church's vestry, or governing body.

Papers for the lawsuit were served Monday evening to Mr. Edwards at his office. "He didn't identify himself, but I knew who he was," the rector says of the process server. "I wasn't expecting this, but I knew it was a possibility."

The bishop's lawsuit also seeks a declaration that the bishop herself may preach, celebrate the Eucharist and minister to parishioners on church property. The parish plans to charge her with trespassing on parish grounds after she unsuccessfully tried to enter the church on May 27 to conduct services.

She ended up celebrating the Eucharist on a nearby tennis court, where one of the parishioners got into a shoving match with David M. Dixon, the bishop's husband. Mr. Dixon has since been charged with criminal assault in Prince George's County District Court.

Ever since Mr. Edwards assumed leadership of the parish on March 25, the bishop has challenged his right to be there by saying she never approved his selection. The bishop and the priest differ widely on their views of women's ordination and Scripture.

The dispute has attracted the attention of dozens of Episcopal bishops, nine of whom have openly sided with the parish against Bishop Dixon. But more than 50 others agree with Bishop Dixon. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey also have intervened, the former saying Mr. Edwards should be ousted.

Both the church and vestry say they are in compliance with the Maryland Vestry Act, which says parishes must comply with church canonical law.

"Church canons with respect to clergy discipline are fairly clear, so I don't see why this is in federal court," Mr. Nalls said. "If they are trying to sue over the contract, it should be in county circuit court."

Christ Church has 20 days to respond to the charges. Mr. Nalls is mulling over a motion to have the case dismissed.

It's ironic, he added, that while many Episcopalians are fleeing the denomination over its liberal leanings on sexuality and the Bible, "These people are trying stay in the church and ask the bishop to follow its own canons. We have complied with the canons of the Episcopal Church and the bishop has not."

In a statement, Bishop Dixon says Mr. Edwards is not fully qualified to head up the parish because of past "blatantly hostile" statements he made concerning the Episcopal Church. She says she offered him a temporary three-year contract as a "priest in charge" at the church on the conditions that he would recognize her authority and not try to remove the church from diocesan control.

Mr. Edwards refused. His attorney says the bishop's suggestion violates canon law.

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