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A Bishop Can't Inhibit What God Inhabits - by David H. Roseberry

A Bishop Can't Inhibit What God Inhabits

by David H. Roseberry

April 17, 2005

Bishop Seabury Church is a vibrant, growing, and spirit-filled Episcopal church in Groton, Connecticut that would just as soon stay out of the headlines. However, the bishop of Connecticut has brought worldwide attention to them, to five other of his nearly 190 congregations, and to himself. Each of the rectors of these six churches has been under the threat of inhibition, presumably for the same thing.

I say presumably because the specific charges brought against these six are unknown. The bishop has brought these charges to his Standing Committee but he has not revealed his reasons to the six priests who stand accused.

On the weekend of April 17, my wife, Fran, and I traveled to Connecticut so I could lead the worship and preach the gospel just in case the rector, Fr. Ron Gauss, were inhibited by the bishop. We were blessed by our visit in many ways. The following is a report of our visit:

I, along with five other priests from parishes outside the Diocese of Connecticut, have traveled here to preach and be present in worship as an act of solidarity for the beleaguered priests and their parishes.

But this church is anything but beleaguered. It is full of life. About 150 people attend the 8 a.m. service. Fr. Ron Gauss is the rector of this unique parish and has served the congregation for nearly 30 years. After the traditional opening hymn, Fr. Ron begins the service with a classic understatement, "I am really glad to be here this morning." The congregation erupts in applause. Fr. Ron had been a target for inhibition on the Friday before, but the bishop of Connecticut, the Right Rev. Andrew Smith, gave them all an 11th hour reprieve on Friday afternoon. He announced that he would not inhibit them or suspend their ministry until he has a chance to meet with all of them and their lawyer on Monday afternoon. Fr. Ron knows this, but he concentrates his energy and focus on conducting the traditional Rite I service.

It is Good Shepherd Sunday. I preach a sermon on the Gospel reading for the day from John 10, the teaching of Jesus on the Good Shepherd. The church is eager to hear what I have to say. They listen, they laugh, and they lean forward in their pews. They need little encouragement. In fact, they encourage me! As a regular preacher to an 8 a.m. congregation, I can tell these people are here for a reason. They are members of a church that has something to say about Jesus Christ. They are focused, happy and strong.

The next hour begins with the adults sharing coffee and breakfast snacks. Fr. Ron then assembles them all into the parish hall for a regularly scheduled but somewhat hectic adult Bible class. The parish hall is packed. There are older members, young families with children, singles, some youth, and a few new visitors. One of the new visitors introduces himself to me and tells me how he found Bishop Seabury Church. He says he and his wife were visiting and happened to walk into a service. Once they heard the music and met some of the people, they knew they wanted to become members. This new visitor's concern is very simple now. Will Fr. Ron be able to stay at Bishop Seabury, or will the bishop really make good on his threat to remove him from ministry?

Fr. Ron quiets the room and asks them to open their Bibles. He teases those who didn't bring their bibles. He starts to read from Isaiah 43 and spins a running commentary for the next 45 minutes. His wit and wisdom is an impressive display of knowledge, personal charisma, humor, practical application, and sage insights. Fr. Ron is a short man in his mid-60s, a convert from Judaism. His energy level is running high this morning. He is "on". The room fills with laughter sometimes. A hand goes up to ask a question. An answer comes. He gives a Jewish perspective on the faith and seamlessly glides through Bible stories and biblical history to make his point. Some of his teaching is delivered like a stand-up comic. He reminds me of Billy Crystal: quick, witty, interesting, and energetic. His congregation loves him. In his closing prayer he offers up all his worry and parish uncertainty to Jesus Christ. He mentions Bishop Smith in his prayer, asking the Lord to bless him and shower him with love. It is quite genuine and direct from the heart.

This church is standing behind their rector in his troubles. They support his conservative theology and they support him. Many of the people I had met were members of over 20 years standing and they all said the same things about their church and their rector. They love them both. In fact, there is a clear unity in this church. They vote unanimously on all major parish-wide decisions. Unanimously. That means that every vote is counted and one person can hold up any major decision. But there was no disagreement 20 months ago when the parish voted to cut the funding to the diocese. It was a unanimous decision: over 300 to 0!

The 10:30 service begins with a "rock" sound. Drums, guitars, piano and a praise team lead the worship music in a string of modern tunes. The organ sits dormant for this service and the congregation doesn't seem to miss it. Some raise their hands in praise and some sway or dance lightly to the beat of the music. Some older Episcopalians just look at the projected words on the two screens and sing softly. It may not be their music, but it is their church! Again, Fr. Ron expresses his relief in being allowed to lead the worship, and again, the congregation breaks into applause.

This service is much less formal. It takes on a church camp feel with contemporary music. Fr. Ron is clearly in command. He has a high regard for the Sacraments and the Word, but is not at all stuffy. In his opening prayer he offers up all the praise to Jesus Christ.

In his closing, he asks the Lord to bring his healing mercy on the people, pastors and structures of Bishop Seabury Church. Again, it is an earnest prayer from the heart. The service concludes quickly. Fr. Ron exchanges his robe for his suit and then greets his congregation with smiles, hugs, kisses and personal and pastoral warmth.

As Fran and I leave, I feel dismayed. We had come to Bishop Seabury Church to tell them of our prayers and support for their difficult relationship with their bishop. They are overjoyed and filled with appreciation for our visit. We have succeeded in this mission and we are thankful.

But I leave feeling even more perplexed about how and why Bishop Smith would single out this parish as deserving of canonical brutalization. Surprisingly, this parish has not been visited by Bishop Smith or any other diocesan bishop in over five years! Why?

Fr. Ron has not abandoned the Communion. He stands squarely in the life and teaching of the great Anglican Communion he serves. His theology is reformed and evangelical. He loves Jesus Christ. He is an Anglo-Catholic charismatic. He loves the church and the work of the Spirit of God. He revels in his Jewish heritage and prays in Hebrew sometimes, but he also prays right out of the Book of Common Prayer. He prays for his bishop, the Presiding Bishop, and the whole of the Episcopal Church.

And Fr. Ron knows that there are thousands of laity, hundreds of clergy, and dozens of bishops who are praying for them. I suspect that if this threat continues, those supporters will stand in line for the privilege of standing with the people and the pastors of these six churches in the Diocese of Connecticut.

--The Rev. Canon David H. Roseberry is Rector Christ Church Episcopal in Plano, Texas.

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