A replacement bishop held church services yesterday at a troubled Prince George’s County, Md. church after a federal court last week stripped the current priest of his parish.
Bishop Ted Eastman, a representative of the acting Episcopal Bishop of Washington, Jane Holmes Dixon, held services yesterday at the Christ Church of St. John’s Parish in place of the Rev. Samuel Edwards, whom Bishop Dixon objected to because of his conservative stance on the ordination of women and same-sex “marriages.”
The leadership of the 300-year-old church in Accokeek has selected Father Steven Arpee of the local diocese to serve as an interim priest. He is expected to start soon.
The dispute of the rural church has drawn national attention because of its impact on the future of the Episcopal Church. Many of the church’s 2.2 million American members oppose the ordination of women and the church’s tolerance of same-sex unions. Others fear the imposition of conservative values on the increasingly progressive church.
On Oct. 29, U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte ordered the conservative Mr. Edwards to leave the church. He has until Thursday to vacate his living quarters, said Charles H. Nalls, attorney for the vestry, the governing body of the church. Mr. Nalls said the vestry will appeal the court decision and ask for a stay of execution to halt the order to vacate.
Meanwhile, it was a tense truce yesterday as the divided parish came together to pray.
“It’s tough but most people said they felt good about being here,” said Bishop Eastman. “These people came here to worship, not make a statement. People need to resolve this, and it is going to take some time and require listening to each other carefully.”
But the bitterness was evident in grim faces and unyielding viewpoints.
Longtime parishioner Chuck Clagett of Accokeek said the judge’s ruling is wrong.
“The judge has encroached on our right to decide what is best for our church,” he said. “The church diocese is trying to push a social agenda. But we are a traditionalist ministry. They don’t want to accept that.”
Others in the 150-member parish supported Mr. Edwards, saying that he “truly believes in his work” and was being punished for his “politically incorrect” viewpoints about the role of women in the church.
“He’s been there for me,” said Robin McDonough, who recalled the priest’s help when her 5-year-old daughter was hospitalized for appendicitis. “I didn’t call him. but he was at her bedside. I don’t know what I would have done without him.”
Some in the parish say he was brought to the parish illegally from Fort Worth, Texas, and that his beliefs conflict with the church’s teachings.
“The [church leaders] tried to shove him down our throats,” said Ruth Schallert, a longtime parishioner. “But the majority of the congregation doesn’t want him here. The others are so fanatical.”
Reconciliation is going to take time, and some parishioners expressed skepticism over its possibility.
“Ordinarily, when one doesn’t like [their parish], they find a church they can agree with,” said Virginia Jameson of Accokeek, who supports Bishop Dixon. “Instead of doing that, they tried to change a church and saw bringing in a specific priest as a way to do that. That’s not right.”
Mr. Edwards was hired by Christ Church on Jan. 17 over the objection of Bishop Dixon.
On March 8, Bishop Dixon rejected the appointment. Opponents of the archdiocese said Bishop Dixon did not object to Mr. Edwards in the mandated 30-day period. But Bishop Dixon has disputed the relevance of the 30-day mandated period.
Regardless, Mr. Edwards began holding services March 25. In May, the bishop ordered him to leave the church but he refused, continuing to hold services at the church.
A group of parishioners left his services and began meeting at a community center with a bishop’s representative.
In June, Bishop Dixon sued Mr. Edwards, saying the church has vested authority in her over all the parishes and clergy in the Diocese of Washington. A federal judge agreed.
Still, parishioners say it is going to take more than a judge’s intervention to heal the divide.
“This is not about interpreting God’s will,” said one parishioner that declined to be named. “This is about power and property.”