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CONNECTICUT: Bishop Threatens Canonical Initiatives to Orthodox Rectors

CONNECTICUT BISHOP THREATENS CANONICAL INITIATIVES TO ORTHODOX RECTORS

News Analysis

By David W. Virtue

HARTFORD, CT--(7/30/2004)--Four orthodox clergy in the Diocese of Connecticut whose parishes have taken part in a 6-parish joint request for DEPO have appeared before Bishop Andrew Smith in response to a "pastoral directive." Three have been told that "canonical initiatives" will be forthcoming unless some resolution is achieved with respect to their differences with the bishop.

The three who received implied threats from the bishop are the Revds. Christopher Leighton, rector of St. Paul's, Darien, one of the largest charismatic churches in the Episcopal Church USA, Allyn Benedict, rector of Christ Church, Watertown, and Dr. Mark Hansen, rector of St. John's Church, Bristol.

The rectors of two other parishes taking part in the joint DEPO request are also under potential discipline from the bishop, having received the same pastoral directive from Bishop Smith via certified letter. He sternly insisted that they meet with him individually at his office. While an original deadline had been set for July 24, conflicting vacation schedules resulted in a delay.

But three of the priests who have already appeared before the bishop have issued personal reports that were obtained by Virtuosity.

The Rev. Christopher Leighton met one-on-one with the bishop for 35 minutes and described their talk as "frank".

"He wanted to make sure I understood that the relationship of the six churches to him cannot continue at the 'impasse'. He sees only three possibilities for us. The first is that we will leave. The second is that we will stay, and accept his form of DEPO. And the third is that we do nothing, thinking that nothing will happen, but that he will take
canonical initiatives against the clergy and their churches."

Fr. Leighton said he listened and then responded telling the bishop that he obeyed the Pastoral Directive to obey the summons and to be present. "I have tried to respect Andrew and his office during his years as Diocesan. I made it clear that St. Paul's and I have no intention of leaving the Diocese or the Episcopal Church. I let him know that I heard firsthand from an individual that the diocesan office, explicitly a staff member, has been saying that "the seven churches are leaving". I asked Andrew to correct the situation and perception. To my knowledge, I have not heard of any church saying it was leaving. And in fact, on behalf of St. Paul's I said, "We're not threatening to leave. We're
threatening to stay."

"I reminded him that I was present as the rector of a parish whose vestry and parishioners are united. The vestry has made a decision to redirect funds. The vestry requested Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight."

Leighton then said there was an untold story in Connecticut, and it is the impact that his actions were having on the laity. "I was present, and so proud of my vestry, as they wrote the letter concerning DEPO, and each member individually signed it." He then asked the bishop if it was his intention to ignore the needs of these parishes.

The priest said that he thought that the House of Bishops offer of DEPO for those who disagree with recent actions of the Episcopal Church was an unusual form of reconciling work to unilaterally impose on an injured party a take-it-or-leave-it approach. "I can't imagine two estranged parties in a marriage ever working it out if one had a plan that he or she insisted would work for the other, without any input from that party."

Leighton said he truly felt like the bishop was coming down the mountain from the House of Bishops position. "I asked him if he would reconsider meeting with the vestries together. He became agitated about them being a power bloc or a mini-diocese. I countered observing that they are in agreement as to what their needs are, and that HIS version of DEPO doesn't meet their needs. I asked Andrew to consider putting aside
concerns about power, and just meeting with the group that is fearful that he will pick them off individually."

Leighton said the bishop was in a hurry. "I asked him what the hurry was. He said he had had these conversations back in April, and that there had to be a conclusion. I opined, "You've won. Why don't you just let things sit for a while?" He said he was soon to go on vacation, that he was expecting action when he returns in September. I told him I
would communicate what he had to say with St. Paul's. He said he would call me in early September.”

Fr. Allyn Benedict of Christ Church Watertown, CT also met with the bishop and reported the following conversation based on notes he took during the meeting with the bishop.

"Bishop Smith began by saying that he has heard our process described as an impasse and it must not stay that way. Something’s got to give. We can’t go on with no relationship at all. He said he wants DEPO to work but he cannot meet our demands within the Constitution and Canons of the Church."

Fr. Benedict responded by saying that DEPO did reflect the true needs determined by the parishes and that Christ Church remains committed to them in common cause with the other churches involved.

"The bishop said he remained firm about not meeting with the churches together. Each church is in relationship with the bishop canonically as a separate unit and each has its own needs and mission and “personality” and he wanted to work with each one to tailor DEPO to their unique circumstances."

The bishop emphasized, with a little heat, that he will not in any way deal with AAC because they have a theological and global agenda, said the priest.

"I responded that our churches have taken a lot of time, having seriously considered our real needs and that we, along with the other churches, find ourselves with a common perspective and a shared commitment to secure provision for our common needs to be met."

"The Bishop pointed out, with apparent frustration, that it seems we have applied for DEPO but now refuse to meet with him. I answered that we have never said we will not meet with him, but we insisted that we meet jointly rather than severally with him."

Bishop Smith argued that we could not go on in the absence of any kind of relationship. "We need to make DEPO work."

"He said he saw only two alternatives. First, Christ Church can break from him; declare our independence—dissolve the relationship. Second, things could go on as they are but only for so long. We cannot live with no interaction…we cannot live within the Diocese but not a part of it in any significant way. At some point he would have to take canonical
initiatives”. He would have to invoke canons concerning jurisdiction, leadership in parishes…I said that it would seem that either course would lead to “canonical initiatives” on his part. He agreed. He hastened to add that he is not in a big hurry to do this.

The priest then asked if there was anything more he wanted to say to me or the church.

"The bishop said yes. He reiterated that DEPO is his first choice and that he wants it to work. He said he had talked with two bishops concerning delegated oversight. One was retired Bishop Jeffrey Rowthorn (Europe ret.) and the other, the Bishop of Fond du Lac, Russell Jacobus. The list was not closed he said, it was open to other possibilities and input from us. Secondly, he said there was a false notion going around that any church granted DEPO would have to pay its 12.5%. The amount would have to be worked out and negotiated between the Diocese and the parish. He said he would not be directly involved. He said this would be a “fair” amount so that we were not just “freeloading”. Thirdly, he wanted one contact a year between one of the Connecticut bishops and the parish. He said a worship service or Episcopal functions was not necessary. Any kind of a gathering with vestry, people, etc. was acceptable so long as contact was not completely broken off."

The bishop said he was torn between his desire to be pastorally sensitive and his ordination responsibility to keep church order, concluded Fr. Benedict.

The Rev. Mark Hansen, the last rector to meet with Bishop Smith, expressed concern over the bishop’s “precisely worded invocation of the phrase ‘canonical initiatives’ in connection with the consequences of a continued failure to resolve the current impasse.”

In a phone call to Virtuosity, Hansen said he was not hopeful that anything could ultimately be worked out with the bishop, as “there are too many crucial issues in our joint DEPO request that the bishop simply is not willing to consider for discussion.”

“The fact that all three of our active bishops in Connecticut voted against B001 is also very troubling to me,” said Hansen. The House of Bishops Resolution B001, defeated during last summer’s General Convention, would have re-affirmed traditional Anglican teaching that “every member of this Church is conscience-bound first of all to obey the teaching and direction of Our Lord Jesus Christ as set forth in Holy Scripture in any matter where a decision or action of the Church, or this General Convention, may depart from that teaching.”.

"Our real hope comes from the Lord,” Hansen concluded. “We are looking forward to what the Lambeth Commission comes up with in October to provide real and lasting assurances that our freedom of conscience to obey scripture will remain intact, not only for us, but for all biblically orthodox parishes in North America. I see no possibility outside of a major realignment."

NOTE: If you are not receiving this from VIRTUOSITY, the Anglican Communion's largest biblically orthodox Episcopal/Anglican Online News Service, then you may subscribe FREE by going to: www.virtuosityonline.org. Virtuosity's website has been accessed by more than one million readers in 45 countries on six continents. This story is copyrighted but may be forwarded electronically with reference to VIRTUOSITY and the author. No changes are permitted in the text.

END

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