Thursday, December 22, 2005

An Episcopal priest who pulled his church out of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia last month is being removed — under protest — from the Episcopal priesthood by his bishop.

A press release dated Monday said Virginia Episcopal Bishop Peter J. Lee had deemed the Nov. 13 leave-taking of the Rev. J. Philip Ashey, pastor of South Riding Church in east Loudoun County, as a renunciation of his priesthood.

Mr. Ashey, who had transferred his 150-member church to the Ugandan Diocese of Ruwenzori under Bishop Benezeri Kisembo, responded with a letter Tuesday informing the bishop that he had not renounced ordained ministry.

He wrote that when he met with Bishop Lee and members of the diocesan standing committee in late November, he had submitted a resignation letter. But he refused to sign a “letter of renunciation” the bishop presented to him. The letter followed a church law (Cannon III.13) whereby clergy wishing to leave the ministry sign a letter confirming their intent.

“A resignation is not a renunciation,” Mr. Ashey wrote, “and by no stretch of the imagination can it be made so without my voluntary renunciation of ordained ministry.”

The diocese is embroiled in a war of parish and property that threatens to split the denomination over the 2003 consecration of V. Gene Robinson as the world’s first openly homosexual bishop.

Dozens of Episcopal churches have left the 2.2 million-member Episcopal Church over the Robinson consecration to affiliate themselves with overseas Anglican bishops.

The diocese said it had decided on its own to remove Mr. Ashey from ministry after a meeting between Bishop Lee and a group of advisers known as the diocesan standing committee.

“In accordance with Canon III.13, [the bishop] received the advice and consent of a majority of the clerical members of the standing committee to remove Mr. Ashey from the priesthood of the Episcopal Church,” the release stated.

“I take no pleasure in this action,” Bishop Lee was quoted as saying. “By his letter and statements, however, Phil has stated his clear desire no longer to be part of the Episcopal Church.”

However, Canon III.13 requires a priest to give a written “renunciation of the ordained ministry of this Church, and a desire to be removed there from …” Afterward, the cleric can no longer use “the gifts and spiritual authority as a minister of God’s Word and sacraments conferred in ordination.”

Mr. Ashey departed with the majority of South Riding’s membership and is calling his congregation South Riding Anglican Church.

The Rev. Martyn Minns, whose parish, Truro Episcopal in Fairfax, supports Mr. Ashey’s ministry in South Riding, said he was bewildered by the diocese’s actions.

“It seems to me that Phil has not renounced his ministry,” he said. “He’s no longer working for the Episcopal Church, but Phil’s still in ordained Gospel ministry.”

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