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BETHLEHEM PA: Bishop Goes After Two Orthodox Parishes


Special Report

By David W. Virtue

BETHLEHEM, PA—Two orthodox parishes and their priests in the Diocese of Bethlehem are feeling the heat from the Rt. Rev. Paul Marshall because they refuse to support decisions made at the last General Convention on human sexuality which the bishop voted for.

Fr. William H. Ilgenfritz of St. Stephen’s in Whitehall said he, his curate, senior warden and every parish member got letters from the bishop, the president of the Standing Committee and the vice-chair of the Diocesan Council questioning their loyalty.

In letters dated April 23, the bishop asked, “Does the Parish of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Whitehall, PA consider itself still to be part of the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Bethlehem? Does the Parish of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church consider itself to still be in communion with the Bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem and under his canonical jurisdiction?”

The bishop wrote, “We expect an answer on or before noon of May 5. In the event an answer is not received in the diocesan office by that date, we will understand the response to these questions to be negative.”

Reached in his office, Fr. Ilgenfritz told Virtuosity, “We have never said we were not part of the Episcopal Church. We have called a parish meeting this Sunday at which time we will obtain some consensus about going forward.”

Fr. Ilgenfritz, an Anglo-Catholic whose parish is affiliated with the traditionalist organization Forward in Faith, North America (FIFNA) said he profoundly disagreed with the decisions on same-sex rites and the confirmation of V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire at the 74th General Convention. His parish then stopped paying its assessment to the diocese as a result, “but at no time have we said we were leaving the Episcopal Church.”

“Clearly the bishop is turning up the heat on us now that he has rolled over on pansexuality in the ECUSA. He has never given us any trouble till now.”

Looking at his situation as an orthodox priest in a revisionist diocese, Ilgenfritz said that “the only means of protest we had was to withhold money to the diocese, and now he is going to use that to try and depose me. The bishop is a canonical fundamentalist when it comes to money, but loose on biblical standards of morality.”

Last year the bishop wrote a book lauding lesbian love.

In another letter to Fr. Ilgenfritz, Bishop Marshall blasted the priest for not turning up to a Bible study he was conducting.

“As you know, I require clergy to attend Bible studies, clergy days and the Chrism Mass. You are in violation of this requirement and have not requested to be excused. Furthermore, my recent attempt to schedule a visitation at St. Stephen’s has been rebuffed. I have a letter from the vestry indicating that is in support of our rector that they are violating the diocesan constitution regarding assessments.”

Marshall demanded that Ilgenfritz “write to me in the next 48 hours advising if you believe yourself to be in communion with me as your bishop and whether you believe yourself bound to respect my canonical authority and pastoral direction.” Marshall wrote that if he did not hear in the “affirmative, I will interpret that as a No.”

Fr. Ilgenfritz wrote back to Marshall on April 27 saying, “I am in violation of your requirement for clergy to attend Bible studies, clergy days, and the Chrism Mass. It is also true that I have not asked to be excused. However, I do wish to remind you that this violation did not occur until after the 74th General Convention and YOUR decision to consent to the election as Bishop of New Hampshire, a man engaged in sexual activity outside the bonds of Holy Matrimony, and to recognize and approve the blessing of same sex unions.”

“Your statement that your attempt to schedule a visitation at St. Stephen’s was “rebuffed” is inaccurate. Your annual visitation was originally scheduled for March 28, 2004. Several weeks before that date I received a letter from your office informing us of a scheduling conflict and inviting our participation in a regional confirmation. Your letter did not offer to reschedule your visit to St. Stephen’s.”

Ilgenfritz said as a result of the rescheduling that the bishop should not have interpreted it as a way of trying to prevent a visitation at a future date. “I have no intention of trying to prevent you from visiting this parish,” he wrote Marshall.

The priest then went on to say that the redirecting of financial support away from the Diocese of Bethlehem to “orthodox local, national, and international organizations and ministries is a direct result of your actions at the 74th General Convention.”

Ilgenfritz said the overwhelming majority of his parishioners sent “A statement of Repudiation and Disassociation from the Actions of the 74th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.” The priest said that a significant number of his members whose combined pledges represent significant financial support have said their contributions were not to be used in support of the Diocese of Bethlehem or the Episcopal Church USA.

“Be assured I have discussed the possible consequences of Article V of the diocesan constitution with them. As the instituted Rector of St. Stephen’s I have a very serious and binding moral, pastoral, and fiduciary responsibility for my people. If faithful people in large numbers cannot in conscience support and maintain their relationship to this portion of the body of Christ because of the actions of the diocese and its bishops, what am I expected to do?”

Ilgenfritz said he was particularly affronted about his loyalty to the bishop and the church. “Do you believe yourself to be in communion with me as your bishop and do you believe yourself bound to respect my canonical authority and pastoral direction?” You must understand how difficult it is for me to answer with an unqualified “yes” or “no.” If I answer “yes,” I will most likely lose my parish. If I answer “no,” I will most likely lose my parish. So, I will answer in the only way I know how to answer – honestly.”

The orthodox priest then wrote, “You are the juridical authority in the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem…I am subject to your authority. I am bound to respect your juridical authority under the canons. However, I am bound to reject your pastoral direction when I believe it is contrary to the Word of God written and to 2,000 years of tradition in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”

Ilgenfritz said that as a priest of the Episcopal Church USA and the Anglican Communion, “I find myself part of a church that has been declared to be in open rebellion and disobedient to the whole counsel of God by the vast majority of baptized members of the Anglican Communion.”

“Just as your communion with the majority of the Anglican Communion has been impaired by your actions in support of the decisions of the 74th General convention, so my communion with you is impaired.”

A letter signed by the President of the Standing Committee, the Rev. Henry Pease and the Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, Vice-Chair, Diocesan Council to the church’s parishioners said congregations exist as such only in relationship with a duly elected bishop, specifically the bishop of the diocese where the congregation is located. The relationship of congregations among themselves and the wider church community is defined by a diocesan constitution and canons developed and approved at one time or another by representatives of those congregations.

“Suggestions by the leadership of your parish that the current problem is about homosexuality or the ordination of a gay bishops seem little more that attempts to distract from the matter at hand: governance and relationships within the Episcopal Church. And congregation and its leaders are free to disagree on issues without risking their position in the diocesan community. The Episcopal Church in the United States does not focus on beliefs held by individual members.”

ANOTHER ORTHODOX PARISH in Scranton, the Church of the Good Shepherd and its rector Fr. Eric Bergman had also received a letter from Bishop Marshall addressed to the vestry concerning his parish’s stance on the actions of General Convention.

In a phone call to Virtuosity, Fr. Bergman said the bishop had written him a letter based on a survey he had sent out to his parishioners regarding the innovations at the last General Convention. A copy of the survey sent out in Jan/Feb with a copy to the bishop.

“The bishop responded negatively to the survey, even though we have no results from the survey. A majority of people in the parish were opposed to the resolutions of GC2003 but we have never threatened to leave. To date the vestry has taken no action.”

The Anglo-Catholic parish has 325 members up from 200 when Fr. Bergman, 33, took over the parish in 1999. “We are a traditionalist Rite I parish and biblical in faith and morals though we are not members of Forward in Faith NA.”

Bergman said the bishop is planning a visitation which he has not opposed. “We will not act on the results of the survey till he has come. The bishop will be made welcome,” he said. “Our parish has done nothing that would seem to be provoking the bishop,” he told Virtuosity.

Ironically Marshall, who was once an orthodox believer and who fought valiantly for the faith when he taught at Yale, and because of the pressure he faced from liberals was glad to escape to the Diocese of Bethlehem, was at one time distressed by what he called "increasing polarization," in the church and invited an ESA bishop to preside at a confirmation service for traditionalist parishes in the Diocese of Pennsylvania in his own diocese.

Explaining his actions in a letter to the diocesan clergy at that time, Marshall said, "I understand myself to be creating something like 'a city of refuge' for those who, for whatever reason, find it desirable to worship with like-minded bishops--just as Bethlehem is already a safe place for people with other points of view." He granted blanket permission to Bishop Donald Parsons, retired bishop of Quincy (Illinois) and Bishop Keith Ackerman, current bishop of Quincy, to preach and celebrate in the diocese. Marshall said at the time that his act was not political but pastoral one.

This is a reverse "St. Paul". When Bennison was persecuting Fr. David Moyer, he asked Marshall to do the same to Ilgenfritz for allowing his name to be considered as a FIFNA bishop. Marshall refused. Now, Marshall has a "new" vision. He should be asked: "Why do you persecute me, Paul?"

“It’s truly tragic,” said Ilgenfritz. “Once upon a time Marshall was a thoroughly orthodox and faithful bishop, now he has sold out to the revisionist agenda in the House of Bishops and pansexuality. Collegiality triumphed over the gospel. It is a sad day for all faithful believers in The Episcopal Church.”

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