- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

Parishes from 37 Episcopal dioceses — more than one-third of all the church’s domestic dioceses — have applied for a new bishop, an unusual move for a denomination whose name, “episcopal,” signifies governance by bishops.

These are parishes under liberal bishops who voted Aug. 5 to approve V. Gene Robinson as the first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop and who may have attended his Nov. 2 consecration in New Hampshire.

The American Anglican Council (AAC), the lead conservative group opposing the Robinson consecration, is collecting the applications through its Web site, www.americananglican.org. It says it will find ways to offer these parishes “alternative oversight,” where a parish rejects its liberal bishop in favor of a more sympathetic, conservative one.

The 37 dioceses include the four regional ones: Virginia, Maryland, Washington and Easton, Md. All four bishops in these dioceses voted to approve Bishop Robinson’s consecration, and Bishop John B. Chane of Washington took part in it.

However, the identities of those parishes that have asked for “alternative oversight” is under wraps. Conservatives say they want to avoid an expensive legal scenario such as the lawsuit filed by Philadelphia Bishop Charles Bennison against St. James the Less, a historic Philadelphia church that is trying to leave the diocese with its property.

“We are approaching a state of civil war in the Episcopal Church,” said Canon David Anderson, president of the AAC. “There are places where the bishop is a tyrant and congregations need alternative oversight. Another bishop would come in and provide pastoral oversight. We may also use retired clergy.”

And if the local bishop doesn’t agree?

“It might have to be jammed down his throat if he doesn’t go along with it,” he said. “People like Bennison can’t be allowed to throw up impassable barriers.”

The first Virginia parish to request a switch in bishops, All Saints Episcopal Church in Dale City, recently met with Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee to explain why they no longer wished to be under his authority.

The Rev. John Guernsey, rector of the 550-member church, also told Bishop Lee the church was cutting its annual contribution to the diocese by $135,000.

“He said he’d like to find a way for us to stay in the diocese,” Mr. Guernsey said. “But we refuse to compromise our commitment to the good news of Jesus’ transforming love.”

The Rev. Geoff Chapman, a Pittsburgh-area priest overseeing the applications, says fewer than 100 parishes have applied.

However the process, which requires the approval of a parish’s vestry, or governing board, is a cumbersome one.

“I’ve good reason to believe that will swell to multiple hundreds in the right circumstances,” Mr. Chapman said. “What’s holding people back — I have to guess at this — is a lack of movement [among conservatives] and the real threat of the loss of property,” because of a canon law requiring all departing congregations to surrender their church buildings and property to the diocese.

“We’ve seen a lot of churches where the bishop or the rector or a subset of the vestry try to shut down congregational dialogue” on the matter, he said, “or bishops have told congregations and rectors they may not raise the issue of oversight in a congregation.”

The AAC says the archbishop of Canterbury, head of the 70-million-member Anglican Communion, has already given alternate episcopal oversight his blessing. Last month, the AAC sent two Northern Virginia lawyers — A. Hugo Blankingship Jr. and Mike Woodruff — to London to work out details with the archbishop’s advisers.

But opponents say nothing in church law lets parishes seek a bishop outside their diocese. On Dec. 5, Presiding Episcopal Bishop Frank Griswold released a letter saying the archbishop of Canterbury backs the official Episcopal Church.

“Unhappy congregations should not expect ‘direct intervention’ by anyone outside the Episcopal Church … including the archbishop of Canterbury,” he said.

The denomination has come up with its own plan for alternate oversight, but the AAC rejected it last month on the grounds that it gave too much power to the local bishop.

Jim Naughton, spokesman for the Diocese of Washington, says not only has no parish asked to leave the diocese, but that most bishops don’t think other bishops should be brought in to supervise them.

“It’s as if by saying so, [the AAC thinks] they can make it happen,” he said. “The only people who think this is in the process of happening are those who desperately want it to happen.”

Sources in the Diocese of Virginia say at least 12 parishes are considering pulling out. An exodus would have staggering implications for the country’s largest diocese, with 86,527 adherents.

Even without defections, projected 2004 income for the Virginia diocese is down $900,000, according to a Sept. 28 report by its treasurer, Mike Kerr. This amount is nearly one-fifth of the diocese’s $4.7 million 2003 budget.

“It’s not just the well-known conservative churches, but churches all over the diocese are cutting their giving,” Mr. Guernsey said.

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