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KENTUCKY: Versailles Episcopal Dispute on the Front Line

Episcopal dispute on the front line


By Frank E. Lockwood

The dispute between the leadership of a conservative Episcopal church in Versailles and Lexington Bishop Stacy Sauls could be one of the first of many such skirmishes across the country, church observers say.

The showdown between Sauls and the governing board of St. John's Episcopal Church is drawing praise and condemnation from national Episcopalian leaders.

In a letter to fellow bishops throughout the southeast, a leading Episcopal bishop praised Sauls' "even-handed" handling of the dispute. But the leader of a conservative Anglican group said the battle in the Lexington diocese represents "a clear threat" to hundreds of other conservative parishes in liberal dioceses across the country.

In Plano, Texas, this week, the leaders of 12 conservative dioceses formed the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes to challenge the denomination's national leadership.

And the Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the conservative American Anglican Council (AAC), said yesterday it may be necessary to disobey church law as conservatives push for a re-alignment of the Episcopal Church USA.

With billions of dollars of property at stake and American Anglicanism deeply divided over the ordination of openly gay bishop and Lexington native Gene Robinson, it's likely there will be further face-offs in the church and in the courts.

"I think there'll be a lot of ... groups in churches or whole congregations pull out," said Walter Wink, professor of biblical interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York.

The leadership of St. John's Episcopal Church in Versailles was removed by the diocese's executive council on Jan. 7 after St. John's selected a new minister without getting the bishop's prior approval. The Versailles leaders and a large portion of the congregation left the Episcopal Church and formed a new congregation, St. Andrew's Anglican Church, four days later.

The parish had been highly critical of Sauls' support for Robinson and had chosen a minister who would not promise to remain in the Episcopal Church.

Sauls and executive council members say they feared that St. John's governing board, called a vestry, would leave the Episcopal church and attempt to take property and bank accounts worth nearly $1.9 million.

But Tom Thornbury, the vestry's top-elected official, said there was never any plan to take the property away. And he noted that he had written a letter promising that the property would be left "entirely intact" if he and others departed to form a new church.

Rev. Charles Jenkins, president of the Presiding Bishop's Council of Advice and Bishop of Louisiana, recently sent a letter to his fellow bishops in the southeastern United States praising Sauls' handling of the dispute.

Jenkins, who opposed Robinson's ordination, says Sauls went to great lengths to work with St. John's leadership, but that they repeatedly snubbed their bishop.

Sauls had supported allowing St. John's to place restrictions on how its annual pledges to the diocese would be spent in the wake of Robinson's ordination. And he had offered to allow a more conservative bishop to participate in confirmations at the parish.

"I think Stacy proceeded with generosity, care for process, sensitivity, integrity and in a very even-handed fashion," Jenkins wrote.

J. Robert Wright, the Episcopal Church's official historian and a professor at General Theological Seminary in New York, also sympathizes with Sauls.

"Bishop Sauls within the Episcopal Church is known to be a very fair-minded bishop," he said.

But AAC's Anderson accused Sauls of "decimating" a successful church and of sending "a clear threat" to hundreds of other conservative parishes in liberal dioceses across the country.

"The bishop can take away their building and property, but what he cannot take away is their spirit and their souls," he said.

Other congregations are also weighing how to respond.

On Jan. 8, in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, the members of All Saints Church voted 468 to 38 in favor of leaving the denomination.

As the future of the Episcopal Church is being decided, Anderson suggests there may be other clashes over church rules -- called canon law -- rules that he labeled "oppressive."

"We've got some canons that are immoral, that are wrong," Anderson said in an interview yesterday, comparing the Episcopal Church's laws to Virginia's past segregation laws.

"We want to remain within the canons, but we cannot promise that we'll obey all the canons all the time."


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