- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

Episcopal Bishop Jane Dixon emerged victorious yesterday in a lawsuit pitting her against an Accokeek church after the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that she acted correctly in evicting its pastor.
However, defendants claim the lawsuit, estimated to have cost the Episcopal Diocese of Washington at least $500,000, may be moot when Bishop Dixon steps down next week as leader of the diocese. Bishop Dixon, not the diocese, is the plaintiff.
On June 1, John Chane, dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in San Diego, will be consecrated the eighth bishop of Washington.
The diocese did not return calls for comment.
Charles Nalls, attorney for Christ Episcopal Church in Accokeek and its ousted rector, the Rev. Samuel Edwards, said his clients were disappointed in the opinion.
"But it seems to make clear that within a week," he said, "Bishop Dixon's claim of right disappears with her claim of ecclesiastical authority. Once she's no longer that authority, her right in the suit doesn't exist anymore."
The suit contends that Bishop Dixon has complete authority over the small rural Maryland parish. Because Mr. Edwards, who was installed as parish rector in March 2001, opposes women's ordination, Bishop Dixon opposed his hiring on the grounds he was not "duly qualified." After parish leaders forbade her from presiding at Sunday services a year ago, she filed suit last June.
Maryland District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte agreed with her and ordered the priest evicted Nov. 30.
As an individual, the circuit court said, the bishop has "no right or authority" to preside at parish functions, but as a bishop, she has every right. To remedy Christ Church's refusal of her authority, she was entitled to seek help from civil courts.
Stripped to its essentials, the lawsuit was about whether Episcopal canon law allowed Bishop Dixon to refuse Mr. Edwards the right to be pastor of a parish within the diocese, the ruling said.
The court said she was correct in insisting a priest's views be in line with her own but would not rule on whether she flouted church law in taking twice as long as the canonically prescribed 30 days in objecting to Mr. Edwards' hiring.
Mr. Nalls said his clients have not decided what their next step will be, as the new bishop of Washington could try to strike a compromise with the Accokeek parish.
Leaders of the church, which is more than 300 years old, say they own the title deed to church property, which would allow them to legally leave the diocese and operate as an independent church.
Mr. Edwards still lives in Accokeek.
The appeals court did overturn one portion of Judge Messitte's ruling, saying his injunction barring Mr. Edwards from holding religious services within 300 feet of Christ Church was too vague.
The dispute was emblematic of a greater split between conservatives and church leaders in the 2.2-million member Episcopal Church USA.
Conservatives, including Edwards, feel the church strays too much from its traditional roots by ordaining women and tacitly accepting homosexuals. Several parishes have split from the U.S. church, aligning themselves with Anglican dioceses overseas.
The former head of the conservative group Forward in Faith, Mr. Edwards said in writings that the church was "hellbound" because of its policies on women and homosexuals.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.


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