Dixon orders visits to Accokeek by former Interim by Robert Stowe England
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Mon Nov 26 01:16:50 EST 2001
Dixon Orders Visits to Accokeek by Former Interim
By Robert Stowe England
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Acting Bishop Jane Dixon has asked Fr. Bob
Stephenson, the former interim rector of Christ Church, Accokeek,
Maryland, to visit the parish and hold services on the next two
Sundays, November 25 and December 2.
Stephenson was terminated by the vestry when Fr. Samuel Edwards assumed
duties as rector. He is closely identified with the minority pro-Dixon
faction in the parish. At his last service in March, he apologized for
failing to do anything to heal the rift in the parish.
Stephenson has conducted at least one of alternative services at the
community center organized by Dixon to compete with the services at
Christ Church. Services were held there from early June to late October
and, until September, were supervised by former Bishop Ronald Haines.
Dixon's ordering Stephenson to return to the parish is viewed by the
vestry as an attempt to interfere with the ministry of Fr. Stephen
Arpee, who was chosen interim rector by the vestry in late October.
"What she is doing now is way over the line. She is crucifying our
church," says Wes Courtney, a member of the vestry.
Dixon tacitly accepted the vestry's choice of Fr. Arpee Friday after
deliberating on the matter for more than three weeks, but expressed
grave reservations about his suitability for the position and his
ability to bring about "reconciliation" to the parish. That appeared to
signal that she would engage in some effort to interfere with Fr.
Despite Dixon's rhetoric about reconciliation, the choice of Stephenson
will likely deepen the already sharp and bitter divisions between the
traditionalist majority and an increasingly hostile pro-Dixon faction
led by George Hansen.
Fr. Stephenson refused to comment in any detail about his pending
visits. "I've tried to have a policy of saying nothing to the press so
that I can pursue a pastoral relationship with the people there," he
says. He says he has no idea what role either he or Fr. Arpee will play
in the services Sunday. He would not say whether he was awaiting
instructions for Dixon.
The parish hired Fr. Arpee to be its interim rector in late October
after Judge Peter J. Messitte of the U.S. District Court of Maryland's
Southern Division in Greenbelt ousted Fr. Edwards as rector in response
to a lawsuit brought by Dixon. The bishop had opposed the vestry's call
of Fr. Edwards but failed to register her reservations until long after
a 30-day review period set in the canons. Believing the call to be
legal, Fr. Edwards accepted the call and came to the parish in March.
Courtney says that Dixon told Senior Warden Barbara Sturman today she
"is going to send some one else down every Sunday" to hold services
until Fr. Arpee completes "interim training." So far, Dixon has sent
retired Maryland Bishop Ted Eastman twice (November 4 and 18) and the
vicar of St. Nicholas in Darnestown, Fr. Ken Howard once (November 11).
Fr. Arpee assisted Bishop Eastman but was co-celebrant with Fr. Howard.
Bishop Eastman preached at all services he attended, relegating Fr.
Arpee to a minor role in the services.
The diocese, according to veteran observers, selectively uses the
pretense of requiring interim training for some priests to make it
difficult, if not impossible for parishes to call priests that do not
strictly adhere to the diocese's aggressive revisionist policies.
Notice of Fr. Stephenson pending visits was made today in a phone call
to Sturman, who left today for an out of town holiday visit and was
unavailable for comment.
"She's trying to push us to the edge," he says, and "incite" the vestry
to take some action that could be deemed a violation of Judge
Messitte's order to allow Dixon to visit the parish or send her
representatives. If the vestry were to violate the order, they could be
charged with a contempt citation.
Courtney said the action would not provoke the vestry into violating
the order. "She will never be able to do that," he says. "We've been in
this battle for five years and if it takes us another five years and we
have to take this all the way to the Supreme Court, we will do it,"
Courtney says. The traditionalist majority in the parish first began to
oppose the diocese when it embraced homosexual practice as morally
upright in 1995.
Charles Nalls of deKieffer & Horgan, attorney for the parish and Fr.
Edwards, warned the judge in a hearing in August that if he granted
Dixon what she was seeking that Dixon would have someone at the parish
every Sunday. Bishops usually visit a parish only once every two or
three years. Dixon has visited the parish at least six times this year,
and has sent representatives for another dozen times. She has had a
representative at the parish every Sunday since the court order went
into effect and appears ready to continue that practice indefinitely.
Fr. Edwards ceased functioning as rector in late October after serving
in that capacity for seven months. He remains in the rectory, along
with his family, at least until November 30, pending a motion of stay
of the court's order while the case is being appeal to the fourth
circuit court in Richmond. If either Judge Messitte or the fourth
circuit grants a stay on the ouster of Fr. Edwards, he would return as
rector at least until a decision is rendered by the fourth circuit on
his appeal. That is expected to take as much as six months or more.
Dixon read from Judge Messitte's order when she telephoned Sturman to
remind her that the court order establishes her as rector ex officio of
the parish, thereby giving her authority to send Fr. Stephenson to the
parish. However, her acceptance of Fr. Arpee as interim rector would,
under canon, remove the bishop as rector ex officio.
Dixon also indicated she wanted to call a vestry meeting next month,
signaling perhaps further efforts to destabilize the parish and
interfere with its normal functioning, according to members of the
Dixon is suspected of being behind an effort to enlist new members to
join the parish and help the minority that supports her oust the vestry
at the next annual meeting in February. On November 4, members of the
pro-Dixon faction dropped 44 pledge cards into the offering plates,
according to Courtney. The pledge cards were not those of the parish.
Of the 44 names on the pledge cards, "at least 20 were people we've
never seen before," Courtney says. The other 24 were "people who left
the church 3 to 5 years ago," including people who had moved away to
Virginia, but who have been "recruited to come back" and commute for
great distances, Courtney says.
A source within the pro-Dixon faction has said that the pledge cards
had been sent to the 44 people by the diocese. However, sources on the
vestry say they are not sure if the cards were printed up by the
diocese or by Hansen.
Tensions have been sharply rising since early last week. Last Wednesday
and Thursday there were efforts taken to sabotage the parish's 76th
annual ham and oyster dinner on Saturday, a major fund-raising event.
These included tearing down signs announcing the event, and a surprise
visit by a health inspector from Prince George's County.
Courtney says the parish is seeking a court order to determine who
filed the complaint that lead to the visit by the health inspector. The
inspector told Barbara Sturman last Thursday morning, "I understand
you're having an illegal dinner here," Sturman says.
The clearest evidence tying the efforts at sabotaging the dinner come
from 40 people who attended the dinner last Saturday and told Courtney
that they had been told by members of the parish that there was no
dinner this year. Courtney collected payments for the dinner. The names
of people mentioned as spreading the false story that there was no
dinner are all members of the pro-Dixon faction, Courtney says.
Word of a potential coup attempt have been floating around since
November 4, when claims were first made to reporters that 87 people had
signed a petition calling for the ouster of the vestry.
Courtney says that he expects that some of the 44 who dropped in pledge
cards will come to the February annual meeting and attempt to vote.
When they are told they can not vote under the by-laws of the parish,
he expects that some of them will file lawsuits against the vestry. The
by-laws requires that members be attending services and making
offerings to the parish for the previous six months.
A spokesman for Save Our Seed, an African-American Bible church has
asked that it be clarified that no one specifically invited them to
attend the parish, but they made that decision on their own. Sixteen
members of the church came to the 10 a.m. service Sunday and sat on the
first two rows. "We were there to pray for Fr. Edwards," the spokesman
said. He indicated that they would return to continue to pray for Fr.
Edwards and that hey may bring additional members of their church.
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