- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2001

ACCOKEEK, Md. Two hundred people gathered yesterday at Christ Episcopal Church in this small hamlet in south Prince George's County for a raucous debate pitting a conservative Episcopal priest against a liberal female bishop.

Diocese of Washington Bishop Jane Dixon was criticized for her stand that the newly arrived Rev. Samuel L. Edwards would "never" be the congregation's rector (senior pastor). Her main objection, she told the crowd, is Mr. Edwards' opposition to ordaining women, which meant he would not fully accept her episcopal authority.

"What you're doing is evil," one parishioner told her. "Leave us alone."

"My God," said another parishioner, "finally here is someone who preaches the Gospel. It's time to let us have our priest and let us move forward."

At issue is Christ Church's new pastor of two weeks from Texas: a traditionalist who does not believe women should be priests and who opposes the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Bishop Dixon, who in May 1992 became the second woman ever to be consecrated a bishop in the Episcopal Church, says he will not be allowed in her diocese.

Diocesan officials say this is the first time in their memory a Washington bishop has refused to allow a priest into a parish after its vestry, or governing board, elected him. In the rare case that a bishop opposes a church's selection of a priest, Episcopal canon law allows the prelate 30 days to veto the offer.

The diocese was informed of Father Edwards' election on Dec. 13 by a registered letter from Christ Church. Bishop Dixon had until Jan. 13 to object to the election. Instead, she requested a face-to-face meeting with Mr. Edwards, which was set for Jan. 10. He canceled the meeting, pleading a schedule conflict. It was rescheduled for Feb. 26.

It was then, Bishop Dixon told the crowd yesterday in a 25-minute speech, that she realized who she was letting into the diocese. The Fort Worth priest, she said, had published remarks saying Episcopal leaders were from "the kingdom of sin and death" and part of the "unchurch."

She added, "I wanted to know if he still held those views." She also voiced fears that the new cleric might lead the 303-year-old parish out of the Episcopal Church. Because Christ Church, a pre-Revolutionary War parish, predates the diocese, it is in a legally favorable position to withdraw from the denomination. Several dozen Episcopal parishes have left the denomination since last summer, when a church council approved sexual relations outside of marriage.

Father Edwards, 46, is the former director of Forward in Faith, a conservative Episcopal group.

"What I thought I was coming up to do was to be a priest in a fairly quiet congregation that wanted a traditional rector," the priest said. "I did not want politics; I had that as seven years heading up a national organization."

"The first question out of her mouth was whether I could recognize her as a bishop in the Anglican Communion," Mr. Edwards says of the Feb. 26 meeting. "I said, 'Yes, since the archbishop of Canterbury has done so. I recognize her institution in the Anglican Communion, but not in the succession of apostles."

He would not refuse her visitation to his parish for confirmations, "but I would not receive Communion from her."

By then, the parish had already issued Father Edwards a contract as of Jan. 17, sending him $10,000 to move his belongings, wife and two children to Maryland. But on March 6, Bishop Dixon issued a letter ordering him to withdraw as rector of Christ Church. Father Edwards refused.

"She completely missed the timetable," Father Edwards said. "It would have been irritating and disappointing if she had said I could not come within a 30-day period, but I would not have come."

Word of Bishop Dixon's actions prompted an angry letter from retired Eau Claire, Wis., Bishop William C. Wantland, a canon lawyer and well-known church conservative.

"You have every right to turn down an election, but only within 30 days," Bishop Wantland wrote. "Beyond that, you have no right, and your action is an affront to the church."

Even authorities at Episcopal headquarters in New York are not sure who is right. "We're just as confused as everyone else," spokesman Jim Solheim said. "Even after the election, the bishop has some leverage to decide whether or not a person is suitable."

Canon law says that after 60 days, any priest must be licensed by the diocese to continue holding services.

"I don't see much possibility of resolving this other than going to court," Father Edwards says. "You have to defend your rights, or you lose them."

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