Skip to comments.Religion today [church split: "St. John's" and "St. John's in Exile"]
Posted on 08/11/2005 4:37:37 PM PDT by sionnsar
BRISTOL, Conn. - Like many in the Episcopal Church, parishioners at St. John's are divided over the issue of gay clergy. But here, the rift has split the congregation in two.
Connecticut Bishop Andrew Smith suspended the Rev. Mark Hansen last month and ordered the building's locks changed, stripping control from the local council. Another priest now leads services there for about 40 parishioners, some of whom are relieved to be rid of Hansen's frequent sermons speaking out against gay clerics. The suspended priest is barred from leading a Connecticut parish for six months and could be removed from the priesthood.
Another 40 or 50 parishioners who support Hansen are calling themselves "St. John's in Exile." They have decamped to nearby Trinity Episcopal Church, where they worship under the leadership of another priest and call Smith's actions "despicable."
Nine conservative bishops from across the country, meanwhile, have threatened to take Smith to religious court. They are preparing a "presentment," a formal ecclesiastical charge, accusing Smith of "conduct unbecoming" a bishop for suspending Hansen.
"I think there are many in the church who are looking at Connecticut as almost a forerunner of what might happen from here on," said David Kalvelage, executive editor of The Living Church, an independent Episcopal weekly.
"This seems to be the first time that a bishop has really clamped down on an individual, and it's the first time we've seen a rally of support to the extent of this one."
The 2003 elevation of the church's first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, greatly deepened dissension over Christian teaching on homosexuality within the Episcopal Church, which has more than 2 million members. The rift quickly spread to the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, the worldwide body that traces its roots to the Church of England, of which the Episcopal Church is the American branch.
Hansen is one of a half-dozen priests at odds with Smith over Robinson's elevation, which Smith supported. Dubbed the "Connecticut Six," the priests have asked to be supervised by a different bishop who agrees with their concept of Christian teaching.
St. John's parishioners who have left say Smith and diocesan officials invaded the parish the day Hansen was inhibited, breaking locks and hacking into computers.
Smith denied that in a letter to parishioners, and those who remain have said there was no damage - a locksmith was called only after members of the vestry refused to turn over keys.
"It's important that people know now, whatever disagreements we might have with the bishop, the real issue as I see it is one of due process," said William Witt, a member of the local council, or vestry, and spokesman for the parishioners in exile. "Father Hansen, whether he's in the right or in the wrong, has not been allowed the opportunity to defend himself. The taking over of our building just doesn't make a lot of sense."
Parishioner Candace Getler, who chose to stay at St. John's, said she likes Hansen and many felt confused about his departure. He announced earlier this year that he planned to leave, and parishioners threw him a farewell party. Then they heard rumors of a nine-month sabbatical. Smith has said that Hansen was ultimately suspended for taking an unauthorized sabbatical.
Some also tired of sermons that became too political, Getler said.
"We all stood behind him. That was not a question," she said. "But I think they got tired of hearing it drilled all the time."
Getler, who has belonged to St. John's for 14 years, said she doesn't agree with Smith's handling of the inhibition but is also uncomfortable with the response of Hansen and the other priests to their bishop.
"Everybody has a boss, and whether you agree with that boss or not, you have to respect them," she said.
Dave Desmarais, another longtime parishioner who has chosen to stay, said he would have called St. John's moderate when Hansen started there 15 years ago. But over the past four years, he said, the church has increasingly moved to the right and sermons have focused increasingly on the issue of gay clergy.
"It's gotten harder and harder for some folks that didn't agree with it," he said. "That seemed to be the central issue every Sunday. The politics were brought into the church."
The Rev. Susan McCone, who has been appointed to replace Hansen temporarily, said she has been pleasantly surprised by the response of parishioners, though some of those worshipping at Trinity have accused the diocese of busing pew-sitters to St. John's to make it look fuller.
"Every day I get a phone call or message from a parishioner who says, 'I haven't been here in a while, but I'm coming back,'" McCone said. "I've seen nothing but growth and happiness to be a parish on the move again."
But at Trinity, led by the Rev. Donald Helmandollar, another of the "Connecticut Six," parishioners remain disgruntled.
"It's important to say I'm in exile because it puts things in context," said Donald McIntyre, a St. John's parishioner who attended a recent service at Trinity. "What the bishop did is despicable. It's out of communion. I feel more at home here than I did at the remnant of that church. We had a godly parish that they destroyed."
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That's simply not newsworthy.
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