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Overstepping Authority?

Latest move by Diocese of Virginia seen as unnecessary by churches that recently split from church.

Former Episcopalians claim the latest move by The Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church of the United States is just another legal step meant to intimidate both current and former Episcopal clergy.

Rev. Peter James Lee, of the Diocese, released 21 clergy "from the obligations of the Priest or Deacon and … [the former Episcopal clergy are] deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority conferred in Ordination," according to an Aug. 2 statement from the Diocese.

The action is one of many Diocese responses to the December decision made by Truro Church in Fairfax and several other Episcopal churches in the state. They voted to split off from the U.S. Episcopal Church and the Diocese to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, or CANA — an Anglican missionary effort sponsored by the Church of Nigeria. CANA affiliates with the Anglican District of Virginia, or ADV, which includes 15 CANA churches and four churches affiliated with the Church of Uganda. The ADV and the Diocese are both part of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The latest action to release the clergy follows a move last month in which the Diocese added individual names of vestry members to the property lawsuits against 11 Virginia congregations. The Diocese claims the church properties belong to the Episcopals, and those who chose to leave the church forfeited their congregations’ properties as a result. The ADV maintains that properties were, and still are, held in trust for the benefit of the individual church or congregation, especially since trustees at each of the congregations are named on the deeds, according to Jim Oakes, ADV vice chairman and senior warden at Truro Church.

The release of the clergy is an unnecessary action, according to Oakes and other ADV officials. What it means is that the clergy who split off from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese last December are now officially stripped of their license to exercise their ministry in the Diocese’s churches — churches they had already severed ties with anyway, thus Lee lacked the jurisdiction to take such action, said Oakes.

"It’s like an employer trying to fire someone who has already quit," said Oakes, during a conference call with reporters and ADV members Friday, Aug. 3.

AT LEAST FIVE Episcopal bishops from around the country agree. Five bishops from Episcopal congregations in Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and California issued a joint statement about Lee’s decision, Thursday, Aug. 2. The bishops claim Lee’s move will not hold much weight in the Anglican Communion, to which both the ADV and the Diocese belong.

"As bishops, we ordain priests for the whole church. Surely we overstep our bounds when we attempt to decide for the whole church that a priest's ministry is ended because he is no longer under our authority," reads the statement. "Because these Virginia priests are priests in good standing in the Provinces of Uganda and Nigeria, respectively, the deposition is, in fact, of no effect. Each is recognized as a priest in good standing of the Anglican Communion … though we continue to work and pray for a charitable disengagement, actions such as this only make our relationships with each other more difficult and divided."

Oakes said the bishops’ statement is highly significant, because it properly indicates that the ADV priests are dually licensed and still in good standing with other Anglican Communion provinces.

"What we have now is some bishops not recognizing actions that other bishops have taken," he said.

What’s especially concerning about Lee’s action, according to the ADV, is the fact that it affects the pensions and health benefits for many of the clergy involved. The congregations are concerned about the clergy, especially for those who are near retirement age, said Rev. Jack Grubbs, rector of the Potomac Falls Church, a CANA member. While the Diocese will still pay pension benefits accrued until this point, according to Lee’s statement, those near retirement age would still lose out.

"If you get 30 years in, the benefits are pretty good," said Grubbs. "If you only get 28 or 29, you lose a lot. Bishop Lee did not need to do this."

It’s an intimidation tactic not only directed toward the churches that already split off, but also toward churches within the Diocese who might be considering making the split too, said Rev. Rick Wright, senior association rector of The Falls Church, a CANA member.

"I believe the Episcopal Church is afraid there are many more people like us, who are just waiting [to split off]," said Wright. "They’re afraid they too may transfer to other provinces that are orthodox and uphold the gospel of Jesus Christ and the authority of scripture."

A further division, on paper, exists among the churches who chose to split off and join the ADV, since some chose to affiliate with the Church of Uganda, and others with the Church of Nigeria. Those congregations, however, have a "great deal of solidarity," said Grubbs.

"There’s not a sense of ‘Well, you’ve aligned with one group, we with another,’" said Grubbs, during the conference call. "There’s a close personal working relationship and a desire to continue working together."

The December split came after the consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, followed by liberal Episcopal actions that more orthodox believers see as an unacceptable shift away from scripture.