Christ Church Battle Heightens

David Virtue DVirtue236 at AOL.COM
Wed May 30 01:14:20 EDT 2001

Christ Church battle heightens

Journal Staff writer

With its fragrant rose garden, weathered tombstones and colonial-era
chapel, Christ Episcopal Church in Accokeek looks more like the setting
for a PBS mini-series than the focal point of an angry and complex
ecclesiastical battle which will most likely wind up in court.

``We're fighting against evil forces," said Christ Church congregant
Barbara Sturman on Sunday, when a nasty on-going dispute between some
members of the 303-year-old church and Jane Holmes Dixon, the acting
bishop of the Episcopal Church's Washington Diocese, turned even
nastier. ``I pray for her. She's a lost soul and I pray she finds Jesus
Christ in her life. For her to have such a Godly man in her pulpit and
for her to reject him is a crime."

Dixon - acting bishop of the diocese, which is headquartered at the
National Cathedral and includes a number of suburban Maryland churches
- is at odds with Sturman and some other church members over their
hiring of former Texas priest Samuel Edwards, whom Dixon has declined
to accept.

Since March, Edwards has been leading services and living with his
family in the rectory. His supporters say Dixon failed to meet a
deadline for rejecting him - a deadline Dixon denies exists.

What is undeniable is that Edwards' views are controversial. He opposes
women being ordained as Episcopal priests, as well as gay marriages. He
has referred to the mainstream Episcopal Church of the United States as
an ``unchurch" run by ``hell-bound machinery." He is also perceived by
some as wanting to take Christ Church out of the Diocese - or possibly
out of the Episcopal church itself.

A court battle is likely. Legal rumblings as to whether the members of
Christ Church - which predates the formation of the Washington Diocese
- own the church and its grounds, or whether the Diocese itself does,
are already underway.

For now, the focus is on who's entitled to run it.

According to Diocese officials, last Friday was the legal end of
Edwards' temporary tenure, though many Christ Church members say - as
does Edwards - that he's here to stay. Dixon was scheduled to conduct
the 9 a.m. Sunday service. When she arrived at the church entranceway
in flowing scarlet vestments, Barbara Sturman - with a mob of
reporters, parishioners and clergy looking on - stood in the doorway as
Dixon expressed her intention to lead a service inside.

``That will not be allowed," Sturman said.

`Then I'll go to the pavilion," Dixon said.

``That will not be allowed either," Sturman said.

But Dixon - followed by a crowd of both supporters and opponents -
proceeded down a hillside to the open-air pavilion structure, where
she led a brief service persistently interrupted by hecklers and
monitored by Prince George's County police. Meanwhile, Edwards preached
from the Gospel of John inside the chapel, where congregants
spontaneously began singing ``Faith of Our Fathers."

Alongside Dixon as she fended off hecklers were Father Tom Andrews,
rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal in Bowie, and recently-retired Bishop
of Washington Ronald Haines - whom Dixon announced would act as interim
priest at the church as it sought a different pastor. Given the day's
dual-service outcome, what will happen in weeks to come is anybody's

``This is dividing the church," said the most vocal of Dixon's critics
during the service, Stan Hubert, whose wife is a congregation member.
``This is Christ Church property ... it's not even your property ...

After Dixon gave communion, congregants joined her in singing ``Amazing
Grace." A number were supportive of her refusal to accept Edwards.

``I think their actions are abominable," said Virginia Jameson, who
with her husband Bernard is one of a number of members who oppose
Edwards. ``They stood at the doorway and wouldn't let her in."

Mainstream church officials have strongly supported Dixon's opposition
to Edwards. The U.S. church's highest official, Presiding Bishop Frank
T. Griswold, has expressed ``complete support" of Dixon's actions.

``I think this is a tragedy, that this kind of schism is going on,"
said Dixon after the confrontation, who said she'd never experienced
the kind of verbal harassment which had occurred during the service.
``I'm sad that Bishop Haines and I weren't welcomed."

Dixon sloughed off the newest twist to the story: the Rt. Rev. Jack Leo
Iker, Bishop of Fort Worth and long-time Edwards ally, has upon the
request of Edwards and his advocates put Christ Church under his
``Episcopal oversight and protection" because Dixon is ``denying" the
church ``sustained pastoral care" by failing to accept Edwards.

Dixon said that despite Iker's announcement, Christ Church remains
under Washington Diocese auspices.

Asked in a recent interview for his thoughts about Dixon, Edwards said
that he has ``a strange sort of admiration for this woman, because
she's so determined."

She's not the only one.

``I'm not going anywhere," Edwards said. ``I have every intention of
being rector here until death."


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