Fight Between Liberal Bishop, Conservative Cleric Highlights Divide in Episcopal Faith

Twenty miles south of Washington, members of Christ Church in Accokeek, Md., are in an unholy struggle between traditionalist and progressive wings of the Episcopal faith. 

Rector Samuel Edwards, who was hired in January to a three-year contract, is at the heart of the dispute. Edwards vigorously rejects the tenets of the national church, particularly the part about ordaining women as priests.

Unfortunately for Edwards, the Washington bishop of the Episcopal Church is a woman, and she is citing canonical law in her quest to rid the church of Edwards.

"We are very different on where we come down on the issues that conflict the Episcopal Church at this time," Edwards said. "It was evident from the interview that she had some concerns about my positions on various and sundry things and how I would fit into the diocese of Washington, which is not notably conservative, to put it mildly."

The interview Edwards refers to took place in March, after the 30-day grace period in which Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon had to object to his hiring.

Dixon said she is using the laws of the canon to oppose Edwards' appointment, a right she sustains as bishop. She also pointed out that Edwards cancelled a meeting he was supposed to have with her during the 30-day grace period.

After the meeting, Bishop Dixon wrote to her diocese clergy. "His teachings and the remarks he made to me reflect a greater interest in division, disobedience, disrespect, and separation from the Episcopal Church," she wrote of Edwards. "Those qualities make Father Edwards unfit to be a rector."

Father Edwards said Bishop Dixon based her objections on materials Edwards had written while executive director of Forward in Faith, a Ft. Worth-based fellowship that adheres to orthodox rules of the church, and which was founded in 1992 on its opposition to the ordination of women. The group also opposes abortion, assisted suicide and the ordination of homosexuals.

Edwards said his writings aside, the date within which the bishop could have protested passed and so he's not going anywhere. And he's not going to make his presence easy on her.

"I did tell her that I could recognize her as my administrative superior but I could not recognize her sacramentally," Edwards said.  That includes not taking communion from her, he said.

Edwards said he has seen the discipline of the church gradually erode since the 1960s to conform with modern reality, and he doesn't approve.

"There were some of us at the time who said that the next step down the road is going to be an endorsement of the homosexual liberation agenda, and to our sorrow, we were right," Edwards said.

The Episcopal Church has no official position on the ordination of gays and lesbians, but many bishops, including Dixon, have embraced the gay rights movement. 

Several members of Christ Church maintain that Edwards is a good match for the traditional-leaning congregation.  But Episcopalian leaders are demanding that the Accokeek church obey the authority of the Washington bishop.

The debate has torn apart the community, raising the possibility that part of the congregation may decide to break away.

"We've seen this pattern before.  It's not all that terribly unusual.  It's sad when it happens because you hate to have those kinds of rifts. Nevertheless, it is something that has occurred before in our history," said Dr. Diana Butler-Bass, an Episcopal historian and adjunct professor at Virginia Theological Seminary.

Father Edwards said he is not going to give in to Bishop Dixon's demands, because the issue is bigger than him.

"I don't think this is about me in the final analysis.  This is essentially about the great divide that exists within the Episcopal Church," Edwards said.

With lawyers now involved, both sides are hoping that faith will lead the way to a reconciliation.

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