- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

A federal judge is expected to rule in several weeks on a series of motions presented yesterday by the acting Episcopal bishop of Washington and a Prince George's County priest whom the bishop has been trying to remove from a parish in Accokeek.
U.S. District Court Judge Peter Messitte yesterday heard arguments from attorneys representing Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon and the Rev. Samuel Edwards about who has legal authority over Christ Church in Accokeek and its affiliated chapel, St. John's in Pomkey, Md.
"This is a case that involves decisions made by the church's decision-making board. Under the First Amendment, the court may not inquire into whether those decisions are right or wrong," said David M. Schnorrenberg, attorney for Bishop Dixon. "You have to defer to that decision. And if you don't defer to that decision, you are establishing religion."
"Is that the rule of law, or is that the rule of whim?" Father Edwards asked after the hearing.
Charles Nalls, Father Edwards' attorney, argued for dismissal of the case, saying the matter was out of place in a secular court and should be decided by an ecclesiastical court, which was investigating the dispute.
"Where is the harm in going by the canonical process [Bishop Dixon] is sworn to uphold and let it play its way out and trust in the institutions of the church?" he asked the judge. "Let's let the process work its way through. No one is going anywhere. The flock is being tended to."
The dispute has drawn international attention because of its implications for the future of the Episcopal Church. A self-described "traditionalist," Father Edwards has voiced the concerns of many of the church's 2.2 million members in America that oppose the ordination of women and the church's tolerance of same-sex unions
In June, Bishop Dixon sued Father Edwards, saying the Maryland Vestry Act, a law dating to 1789, affirmed her authority over the Diocese of Washington and all its parishes and clergy.
The vestry, or governing body, at the 300-year-old Christ Church, about a half-hour's drive from the District, picked Father Edwards as rector in December. They said Bishop Dixon did not object to their selection of Father Edwards within a mandated 30-day period, so they offered the priest a contract on Jan. 17. Bishop Dixon said the 30-day statute was not binding and rejected Father Edwards' appointment on March 8.
"What we ask the court to do is go with the status quo, to let the people have the priest they lawfully called," Mr. Nalls said. "They followed the rules. That's the argument that's been presented all day long. That's the argument that's before the ecclesiastical court. They followed the rules."
Father Edwards began his rectorship on March 25. Bishop Dixon held a rival service on the basketball court outside Christ Church on May 27 after she attempted to take back the ministry. The congregation has since been divided, celebrating Mass at rival services each week.
Mr. Nalls estimated in court yesterday that of 135 parishioners, about 20 active members attended the services sanctioned by the bishop and an average of 60 more regularly attended services led by Father Edwards. Mr. Schnorrenberg told the judge more parishioners attended the bishop's services but did not offer any figures.
Judge Messitte yesterday repeatedly inquired about the effects of deferring the decision on Father Edwards' standing as rector to the ecclesiastical courts but granting Bishop Dixon access to the church. Mr. Schnorrenberg said such a decision would be a "partial victory."
"I think to not rule is to reward Father Edwards for asserting squatter's rights," he said.


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