- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The northern tier of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the country’s largest diocese at 86,527 adherents, is in an ecclesiastical civil war with its Richmond-based bishop, the Rt. Rev. Peter J. Lee.

His largest, richest and most conservative parishes are putting out signals that they may secede from the diocese, beginning with $262,000 in financial pledges withheld from the diocese’s annual $4.7 million budget.

That amount is projected to rise to $355,000 by the end of the year.

At issue is Bishop Lee’s Aug. 5 vote affirming the election of an openly homosexual bishop-elect, V. Gene Robinson, at the denomination’s triennial General Convention in Minneapolis. Bishop Lee also voted for a resolution acknowledging that some bishops were allowing same-sex unions.

Priests are not allowed to perform same-sex unions in the Virginia diocese, which is why Bishop Lee has been accused of violating his own policy.

Hostilities have risen to a new level with some parishes either avoiding Bishop Lee or telling him not to darken their doors for the annual bishop’s visitation known as Confirmation, where converts are received into the faith.

All Saints Episcopal Church in Dale City, which averages 565 worshippers on Sundays, has rescinded an invitation for Bishop Lee to preside at its Nov. 9 confirmation service, requesting that the more conservative Bishop Francis Gray be sent instead.

“Our people,” said a letter signed by parish leaders, “are so distressed by your views that contradict the very teaching of Scripture that your visit this fall would be painful and divisive.”

Although the diocese agreed to send Bishop Gray instead for a Nov. 6 ceremony, parishioners have cut $35,000 out of the church’s annual contribution to the diocese. The church normally contributes 11 percent ($158,000) of its $1.3 million budget to the diocese.

At Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, the second-largest parish in the diocese with a $3.5 million annual budget and 1,700 worshippers at weekend services, church leaders decided to halt confirmation classes altogether rather than risk a confrontation.

“Our youth ministers threatened to quit teaching confirmation [classes] because their parents won’t let Peter Lee physically touch their children,” said the Rev. Herb McMullan, head of outreach ministries. “In their minds, he is apostate.”

Truro typically has 50 to 60 children per fall class.

Bishop Lee is scheduled to visit the Episcopal Church of South Riding in eastern Loudoun County in May, but “few if any people will choose to be confirmed because of the direction the bishop has taken,” said the Rev. Phil Ashey, pastor of the 3-year-old congregation of 80 to 100 people.

“Our hope is the bishop will repent and repudiate his vote,” he said.

A spokeswoman said Bishop Lee had no immediate comment. He had shown no signs of changing his mind and issued a statement Thursday saying the Diocese of New Hampshire had the right to choose its own bishop.

Also last week, he wrote to all 187 congregations in the diocese, saying that “failure to support our common life has an immediate negative effect on ministry that has nothing to do with controversial issues.” He enclosed an envelope for their 2004 contributions.

A board meeting of the American Anglican Council, the main national conservative Episcopal group opposing Mr. Robinson’s election, meets today and tomorrow at Truro to plot strategy. The AAC sponsored a meeting in Dallas for 2,700 conservative Episcopalians two weeks ago that called for a “realignment” within the Episcopal Church.

But 37 of the world’s Anglican archbishops, meeting last week in London, stopped short of disciplining the Episcopal Church for electing Mr. Robinson. They did release a nuanced statement that conservatives said gave them a green light for creating ecclesiastical refuges for conservative parishes marooned in liberal dioceses.

The Diocese of Virginia has become “hostile,” says Canon David Anderson, AAC president.

“There was a feeling among Northern Virginians before the General Convention [in Minneapolis] they could trust Peter Lee,” he said. “I think they have reassessed the situation.”

Not all of them would agree, including those at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Arlington, which decided to give more money to offset the deficit.

“We support our diocese, our bishop and the process they went through at the General Convention, which was quite prayerful and thoughtful,” said Nina Janopaul, the church’s senior warden. “We are pleased the national church is struggling with these issues and moving toward inclusiveness.”

One fledgling congregation, the 2-year-old Church of the Holy Spirit in Ashburn, is refusing its $54,000 support money from the diocese because of the Robinson vote. A diocese typically funds such churches — called mission congregations — for several years until they become financially self-sufficient.

“Losing a seventh of your budget is not a small thing, but we are trusting that God will provide,” said the Rev. Clancy Nixon, pastor of Holy Spirit. Ever since the mission congregation, which has a $380,000 annual budget, began refusing its support money in August, funds have been “tight,” he said. But Mr. Nixon said he has not had to take a salary cut.

“We could not in conscience take money from the diocese,” he said.

The Falls Church Episcopal, the diocese’s largest parish at 2,200 in attendance and a $3.9 million budget, has cut back about $200,000 in annual contributions to the diocese.

Its $20 million capital funds campaign to build a new education building is on hold. Likewise is a $9 million building campaign at the Episcopal Church of the Apostles in Fairfax and a $10 million building campaign by All Saints to relocate to a prime $2.7 million piece of real estate next to Interstate 95.

At issue is a church law saying that if a church decides to leave the denomination, all parish property reverts to the diocese.

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