Skip to comments.CT State Is Front Line In Episcopalian War
Posted on 01/08/2007 4:50:59 PM PST by sionnsar
The Christmastime decision by eight Virginia congregations to bolt the Episcopal Church in favor of Anglican partners in Africa echoed loudly in the church's oldest diocese - the one in Connecticut that is shuddering from its own active revolt.
"We are living in a time of great chaos. Would we consider breaking out [like the Virginia churches]? Yes," said the Rev. Christopher Leighton, rector at St. Paul's Church in Darien, a leader of the rebel band known as the Connecticut Six.
"As people, we hate chaos. But God loves chaos. God creates out of chaos," he said.
Chaos is a good description of the turmoil in a church once called "the Republican Party at prayer" and still identified with the nation's power elite.
On a global scale, the revolt unites conservative U.S. congregations with African churches in the belief that the Episcopal Church's liberal stance on homosexuality has carried it much too far from the Anglican faith they all inherited from the Church of England.
Ignited by the 2003 election of the openly gay Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire, the dispute has at stake the potential exclusion of the 2.2 million-member U.S. church from the worldwide Anglican Communion. Also on the line is the ownership of millions of dollars of church property, some of it historic. George Washington worshipped in one of the Virginia parishes now allied with Africa.
In Connecticut, the rebellion has seen such oddities as a rally at the state Capitol where a Ugandan bishop called out, "Africa is praying for you. The church is one"; the freezing of parish bank accounts by the diocese; and the dramatic seizure in July 2005 of one rebel church, St. John's in Bristol.
The simultaneous ouster of that church's longtime rector, the Rev. Mark Hansen, by Bishop Andrew Smith provoked a national outcry, created the equivalent of a Connecticut Six martyr and reduced the number of rebel churches to five.
The diocese's disciplinary actions also provoked a legal counteroffensive. A Connecticut Six lawsuit citing civil rights violations is on appeal in federal court, and Ralph Dupont, the lawyer for the group, said he is preparing to file parallel suits in state courts. Dupont said that if the cases go far enough, they could lead the courts into new territory regarding the separation of church and state.
"These cases are perhaps the leading cases in the world on this subject," Dupont said. "A court may have to decide whether there is a broken communion or not [between the local churches and the diocese]. That goes right to Article One of the U.S. Constitution."
The most intriguing legal case, though, is a little-known one that may end up in ecclesiastical court. It accuses Smith of violations of canonical law, including his part in the seizure of St. John's Church and his finding all the Connecticut Six priests in "abandonment of communion."
A panel of bishops from other dioceses, acting somewhat like a grand jury, is reviewing evidence gathered over the past few months. It could rule as early as this month on whether there is enough evidence to require Smith to undergo a rare church trial called a "presentment."
At the diocese's annual convention in October, Smith devoted most of his address to the troubles with the rebel churches. He said that it has cost the diocese more than $350,000 in legal fees and that the five remaining congregations had tried to recruit "converts" to their cause from other parishes.
"The active sabotage of the diocese by leaders of these five congregations and those who support them from the outside are a scandal in the community and before the Lord, and they cannot continue," Smith said.
Revolt In Virginia
Smith's address, Leighton said, was revealing of the diocese's inflexible attitude. "Their hearts are hardened like Pharaoh's heart in Egypt toward the Jews. And Pharaoh wouldn't let them go," he said.
Smith expects that a key leader of the Virginia revolt, the Rev. Martyn Minns of the historic Truro Church in Fairfax, will make overtures to other congregations as head of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a mission given to him last summer by Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola.
As head of the largest Anglican church, with more than 17 million members, Akinola's power is said to rival that of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the official leader of the Anglican Communion. Akinola's view that homosexuality is an abomination, contrary to God's plan, is said to be informed by cultural taboos and his church's competition with Islam, as well as his own strict reading of Scripture.
The Virginia vote did not surprise Smith. "I feel deep sadness for the church, but it is something I expected would happen," he said last week.
For Smith, Minns' earlier ordination by Akinola was a clear sign the Virginia churches would break away sooner or later. Most allied themselves with the Nigerian mission.
Next >> Minns has old ties to the Connecticut diocese. He was living in Darien in the 1970s when he gave up a career with the Mobil oil company to become a priest. His first posting was at St. Paul's. In 1999, as rector at the Truro Church, Minns was one of six candidates for bishop in Connecticut. He received a third of the combined votes cast by clergy and laypeople, Leighton said. Smith, a former rector at St. Mary's Church in Manchester, won the election.
Smith said he had no indication from the five parishes openly at odds with him that they might follow the Virginia churches. Besides St. Paul's in Darien, the others are Christ Church in Watertown, Trinity Church in Bristol, Christ and the Epiphany Church in East Haven and the Bishop Seabury Church in Groton.
The latter church bears the name of Samuel Seabury, whose appointment as bishop in 1784 made Connecticut the new nation's first Episcopal diocese.
Asked about the Virginia vote, the rector in Groton, the Rev. Ronald Gauss, said tersely, "We're still in the same position we have been. We're still in the Episcopal Church."
The "same position" describes the status of the rebel congregations' 3-year-old battle with Smith, which has now reached a precarious stalemate.
They are withholding monetary assessments due the diocese, even as they remain under threat of discipline that could be as severe as that which Smith took against Hansen. Smith has maintained he suspended Hansen for taking an unauthorized leave of absence, not because of his theological dissent.
Outcry In Connecticut
The Connecticut Six revolt began after Smith joined with the majority of bishops from the national church's 100 dioceses in consecrating Gene Robinson's election. The ordination of gay and lesbian priests already divided the church, but Robinson was the first bishop and he was living openly with a gay partner.
The majority of the Anglican Communion viewed Robinson's election as the U.S. church's final act of defiance. At their Lambeth Conference in 1998, the Anglican churches as a body adopted an advisory resolution rejecting "homosexual practice as incompatible with scripture," while assuring homosexual people that "they are loved by God."
In response to the outcry over Robinson's election, the national church created a process known as Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight, or DEPO, to placate conservative congregations. Instead of the full separation pursued by the Virginia parishes, it permits an unhappy parish to remain within the church, reporting to a bishop whose views it finds more suitable.
Much of the fight between the Connecticut Six and Smith has been over the terms of delegated oversight they are seeking as a group. In a May 2004 letter, they told Smith they wanted a bishop who neither supported Robinson's election nor favored the ordination of homosexuals deemed "unchaste." They also wanted guarantees of their right to choose new priests as openings arose.
The letter also said alternative oversight would be unnecessary if Smith expressed repentance for his positions on homosexuality and acknowledged his actions had damaged the worldwide Anglican Communion.
"They gave me two choices. Either I change my faith and agree with their faith beliefs, or they should be free to choose their own bishop," Smith said.
"What I can offer within the DEPO, the parishioners and clergy will not accept. They have set up a situation and demands I cannot meet. We are at an impasse. There has been no conversation about where we can go."
Leighton, of the Darien parish, said Smith wanted to control the DEPO process, and only offered an oversight by someone the parishes could not accept. He described the diocese's stance as an example of the "the intolerance of the tolerant" and "Stalin-esque."
Separation would be easier if only theology divided the church.
Out Of Communion
After the Virginia congregations seceded, their bishop described them as "occupying Episcopal churches." An open question, which may be decided in the courts, is: What happens to millions of dollars worth of church property and bank accounts?
"The battle is really ... to hang onto endowment and property while not identifying with the official policies of ECUSA [the Episcopal Church in the U.S]," said Ian Markham, dean at the Hartford Seminary.
Markham, an Episcopalian in the process of being ordained a priest, recently published an editorial supporting the U.S. church's liberal view on homosexuality.
"What's at stake is, what does it mean to belong to ECUSA? Bishop Smith is saying it means continuing to support the church while disagreeing. The other side says belonging is impossible where there are fundamental issues of theology and belief at stake," Markham said.
"Schism is just too easy and people ought to struggle longer with their disagreements," he said.
The historic irony is that the Anglican faith emerged, after King Henry VIII's marital troubles, as a "middle way" between Roman Catholic and Protestant theology.
The paradox now is that each side speaks of the other as being out of communion with the church depending on whether they are talking about the U.S. church or the world Anglican Communion.
In their ecclesiastical complaint against Bishop Smith, the Connecticut Six claim that he found them to have "abandoned the communion of the Episcopal Church" without due process under church law.
Yet the complaint also says Smith signaled his "departure from the Anglican Communion" by supporting Robinson's consecration as bishop and the blessing of same sex unions.
Leighton, of St. Paul's, compressed the schism into a comparison between Smith and Hansen, the ousted priest.
"Is Drew Smith an Anglican? Or is Mark Hansen?" Leighton asked. "That's the question to be decided in the months ahead."
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