St. Luke's Stands Bravely Against Dixon's "Visitation" - A Blast from the Past
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Sat May 5 01:39:22 EDT 2001
St. Luke's Stands Bravely Against Dixon's "Visitation"
By Robert Stowe England
January 18, 1999
BLADENSBURG, MD--It was the second modern-day battle of Bladensburg in
the Diocese of Washington, and the outcome was the same as the first
one three years ago.
Holding firm to catholic order, the vast majority of the 180- member,
multi-ethnic St. Luke's Episcopal Church--including its entire vestry
and rector, Fr. Edward Raffetto--rejected the January visit of
Washington Suffragan Bishop Jane Dixon to St. Luke's by staying away
from the service.
Dixon is believed to be the only female bishop within Anglicanism to
have made visitations to parishes that do not accept women's
ordination. Starting at St. Luke's in 1996, Dixon made three
controversial visits to traditionalist parishes, ushering in what
opponents claim is an era of persecution against those in the diocese
and the wider Episcopal Church (ECUSA) who oppose women's ordination.
On January 17 Bishop Dixon returned again to lead St. Luke's 10 a.m.
service, this time despite admonitions from the international Eames
Commission in 1997 and the Lambeth Conference last year.
About 60 St. Luke's parishioners--more than double the usual
attendance--opted instead to attend the 8 a.m. service, and departed
the premises afterward, ahead of Bishop Dixon's arrival.
Fr. Raffetto, who described the visitation as "a desecration" of the
church, returned after Dixon's visit and recited the Litany of the
Saints at the entrance to the church with a single parishioner, Gary
Schenk. He then entered the church and conducted what he called a
"cleansing" ceremony, complete with the sprinkling of holy water, "to
restore it to the use for which it was dedicated and consecrated."
He hastened to explain that the rite was not an exorcism, because
"there was no clear intention on the part of the offenders to do evil."
It is also "no reflection on Mrs. Dixon as a person," Raffetto added,
but merely a reflection of his belief that a female bishop is a serious
break from historic Holy Order, still maintained by the vast majority
He lamented the estrangement created by the diocese's continued pursuit
of a revisionist agenda and Bishop Dixon's visitations. "There is no
room in the Diocese of Washington for people who believe the faith,"
Fr. Raffetto said. He said that he finds himself entirely out of
communion with the diocese's leaders. "It's intolerable...horrible, for
a priest not to be in communion with his bishop," said Raffetto, who
retires February 1 after 30 years in the ministry, but at the age of
When Dixon was elected suffragan in 1992, both she and the diocesan,
Bishop Ronald Haines, pledged that Dixon would not visit what, at the
time, were six parishes in the diocese which objected to women priests
and bishops. In 1996, however, Haines supported what opponents called
Dixon's "forced visitations" at three remaining parishes where the
rectors, vestry and a majority of parishioners continued to oppose
women's ordination. Besides St. Luke's, there was Ascension & St. Agnes
and St. Paul's K Street, both in Washington, D.C. The visitations
created a firestorm of negative publicity for the diocese.
The Diocese of Washington was faulted for Bishop Dixon's 1996 visits to
traditional parishes in a 1997 report by the Eames Commission, an
international Anglican body which helped set guidelines for handling
differences over women's ordination within and between provinces.
Dixon's January 17 return to St. Luke's appeared to be out of the
regular rotation of visits. The diocese has frequently stated that one
or other of the two bishops visit a single parish every 22 months or
so. Bishop Haines visited St. Luke's in December 1997, only 13 months
When asked why she was coming so soon after Haines' visit, Bishop Dixon
said that "Church House makes up the list" of visitations and she
simply goes where she is sent.
Dixon's recent visit to St. Luke's also contravenes the non- coercive
policy on women's ordination affirmed by the world's Anglican bishops
at last summer's Lambeth Conference. Declaring that both those for and
against women's ordination are "loyal Anglicans," that resolution
called on provinces to respect conscience in the matter, and to allow
alternate episcopal visitors where there are differences over it.
Bishop Dixon maintained that she was not in violation of Lambeth.
"There was a service at 8 o'clock for those who do not accept me," she
said, adding: "We must make visits to all the churches in our diocese."
When it was noted to Bishop Dixon that the vestry had asked her not to
come, she declined to respond further.
The 8 a.m. low Mass and homily were somber, and the parishioners left
quietly afterward. "It's very saddening. Our wishes and our consciences
are not being respected," said Felix Ogunba, Senior Warden, who came to
the U.S. from Nigeria 20 years ago. "I would prefer that she not
visit," he said.
"My beliefs are guided by my principles. I don't think I should pretend
to accept her when I don't believe she is doing the will of God,"
After the early service, Fr. Raffetto removed the Blessed Sacrament and
the tabernacle from the altar and extinguished the sanctuary candle.
"This is to signify to those who come here that the Christ is no longer
present," he said.
As in 1996, the church doors again were left unlocked for the 10 a.m.
service. Although parishioners were notified of the visit in a church
bulletin, no effort was made to prevent anyone from attending who
wished to do so, according to Fr. Raffetto.
Three reporters and two parishioners occupied the church when Bishop
Dixon arrived at 9:45 a.m., with her husband, and Tom Hoppin, a member
of the diocese's Standing Committee and a parishioner at St.
Margaret's, Washington. Another member of the Standing Committee, Ellen
Washington of St. Phillip's, Laurel, Maryland--Bishop Dixon's home
This was a change from 1996, when Dixon was supported during her visit
to St. Luke's by a number of other people from throughout the diocese.
Then, only two or three St. Luke's members attended.
This time the number of parishioners present was a bit higher, and
these were joined by some newcomers and visiting former members.
However, some arriving worshippers did not seem to be aware that Bishop
Dixon was scheduled for a visit that day.
One parishioner, an elderly white woman, said she was not sure she
would go forward for communion when the time came. However, she later
joined 17 other adults and 3 children who went to the altar to receive
Some of the parishioners said they came because they wanted to worship
at the 10 a.m. service, even though they knew Bishop Dixon would be
there. "I didn't come to worship the bishop. I came to worship God,"
said Edwin Freeman, an gray-haired immigrant from Liberia.
St. Luke's members Walter and Ermine Fox indicated they had no problem
with a visit by a female bishop. They received communion from Bishop
Of the 18 adults who took communion, 7 identified themselves as
parishioners. Another 5 identified themselves as members of other
parishes in the diocese.
Three reporters and 7 parishioners--including a Nigerian family of
newcomers--did not make their communion. Another 6 parishioners--mostly
seated in the back--left before communion was administered. After their
departures, total attendance was below 30.
Bishop Dixon was pleased, though, that more St. Luke's members attended
this time than in 1996. "I thought it was marvelous," said Bishop
Dixon. The rise in numbers signified to her that "there are people here
who consider this parish part of the Diocese of Washington."
One parishioner thought that Dixon's visitation seem to do more harm to
her image than good, though. "Normally one expects a bishop to bring
out a lot of people. It's supposed to be a big deal. It's like being a
big star and nobody shows up to hear your concert. It's really
humiliating when the turnout is so low," she said.
Bishop Dixon's sermon explored topics tied to the baptism of Jesus by
John, and the calling of the first disciples. "You and I are baptized
in this ministry," she said. "When the water is poured on our heads,
Christ himself is present in that."
She identified, as two prominent figures who had taken up the baptismal
ministry of Christ, Martin Luther King, Jr. and retired Archbishop
"What does it mean to follow Jesus?" she asked in her homily. It means,
she said, changing the way we live. "People know about God by how we
live," she said. We can show forth God in our lives by how we treat
children and neighbors and by how willing we are to embrace those who
are different, she said.
Bishop Dixon lauded St. Luke's for being an example of a church that
was truly open to everyone in its neighborhood, a fact obvious in the
diversity of its membership then present. "You open the doors to all
who come to you, including me, and for that I'm very, very grateful,"
Though she had requested volunteers from among parishioners, the
Scripture lessons for the service were read by Steve Morrell, a member
of Grace Episcopal Church in Silver Spring and a former parishioner of
St. Luke's. Hoppin of St. Margaret's led the prayers of the people in
the service. And, as the service concluded later, it was Ellen
Washington of Dixon's home parish who began to sing a rousing rendition
of "Amazing Grace" from her seat in the pew. Bishop Dixon and several
in the congregation joined in. There had been no music during the
service. "I like to have music when I come to church," she explained
Later, after nearly all worshippers had left, Bishop Dixon approached
Fr. Raffetto outside the church and asked to see the church's service
book and parish register. The priest refused the request, noting that
he did not consider this an episcopal visitation. Dixon said she would
bring the matter before Bishop Haines, who would contact Fr. Raffetto
Fr. Raffetto was asked if Dixon's visit was not, in fact, promoting
schism between the diocese and the wider Anglican Communion. "I don't
know that it's any more schismatic than anything else the diocese has
done before. It is clear that the Diocese of Washington is separated
from the Church of Jesus Christ. This is just one example. They are
acting out of a schism that already exists," Raffetto said.
In October the vestry of St. Luke's voted unanimously to reject Dixon's
visit, and the parish sent a letter to Bishop Haines, requesting that
she not come. "She is not a bishop. The Diocese errs in saying she is
in Holy Orders," they wrote.
The vestry also asked Haines to allow the parish a traditionalist
episcopal visitor, or "flying bishop." So far, the diocese, while
answering most all the other questions raised in a series of
correspondence, has neither allowed nor refused permission for the
parish to call its own flying bishop. However, some statements from the
diocese suggest that if the parish came under the oversight of a flying
bishop, that Bishops Haines and Dixon would still continue to make
their visits, according to Raffetto.
After the 10 a.m. service, Fr. Raffetto returned with a single
parishioner, Gary Schenk, to place the Tabernacle and Blessed Sacrament
back on the altar.
Again accompanied by Schenk, Raffetto then began the cleansing rite at
the church door, with the Litany of Saints, and kyrie eleison. This was
followed by an invocation of Holy Mary, Mother of God, the Holy Angels
of God, St. John the Baptist, and 24 other saints by name, followed by
the line "Pray for us," which was recited by Schenk. The litany also
called on "all holy men and women" to "pray for us."
"Lord be merciful," said Fr. Raffetto. "Lord, save thy people," said
Schenk. "From all evil" Raffetto said. "Lord, save thy people," said
The litany ended at the door with "O Christ, hear us" and "Lord Jesus,
hear our prayer."
Inside the church, the priest sprinkled holy water as he walked down
the aisle of the church toward the sanctuary and the altar. As he
walked he read prayers from The Book of Occasional Services.
When he reached the sanctuary, Fr. Raffetto prayed in part, "Almighty
God, Holy Trinity, whose kingdom is everlasting and power infinite,
have mercy upon this parish. Forgive the wilful rejection of thy holy
order...Send thine angels to help us cleanse it from all defilement..."
He asked the Lord to restore the church "to fulness of life and grace,
that thy praise may be celebrated once again through Jesus Christ Our
Fr. Raffetto then made a series of declarations restoring each of
various items "to the use to which it has been dedicated and
consecrated." This included the building, the altar, items on the
altar, ornaments of the liturgy, the book of the Holy Gospels, holy
vessels, and all other things in the building.
He then prayed, "Almighty God, by the radiance of thy Son's appearing
thou has purified a world corrupted by sin. We humbly pray that thou
wouldst continue to be our strong defense against these acts of our
enemies and grant that this church, which has been stained and defiled,
through the craft of Satan or by human ignorance, may be purified and
cleansed by thy divining grace, that this place purged from all
pollution may be restored and sanctified to the glory of thy name,
through Jesus Christ Our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and
the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen."
In 1996, Dixon reportedly claimed on a radio program that Ascension and
St. Agnes, Washington, had conducted an exorcism following her visit
there--an assertion which was, however, untrue.
Now that the diocese has something real to work with--if not an
exorcism, a cleansing rite performed in response to Dixon's visit to
St. Luke's--Raffetto concedes the diocese may attempt to take some form
of retribution against him.
He is more concerned, though, that the parish vestry--now busily trying
to land both an interim and a new rector--will be manipulated by the
diocese and the parish's faithful witness eventually destroyed.
"I have seen decent, kindly, good and wonderful [Christians] shredded
by these people," he said, referring to Washington's bishops and
revisionists in the diocese and elsewhere in ECUSA. "It almost makes
you wonder if you are involved in a genuinely Christian endeavor," he
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