Hearty but not Cordial

Whilst reports emanating from the English House of Bishops indicate no burning enthusiasm to see women taking their rightful place in that august body for the foreseeable future, in other parts of the former Anglican Communion women bishops are much in evidence.

Jane Dixon, the suffragan Bishop of Washington, is no stranger to controversy. She was, not long ago, one of the many bishops of the Episcopal Church to ordain a professed, practising, non-celibate homosexual (in this instance a lesbian). Bishop Jane has recently been pursuing her cause in parishes in the diocese which have conscientiously refused her ministry.

Though their fervour for ‘fundamental justice’ has apparently been tempered by a very Anglican admixture of pragmatism and caution, ‘justice’ was one of the most powerful arguments for women’s ordination advanced in the English debate by a bevy of bishops, among them George Carey, Mark Santer and Roy Williamson. Right on! is Bishop Jane’s spirited response. In a campaign for what she takes to be ‘justice’ we find her here engaged in the pursuit of Washington’s final solution:

The following is adapted from the Revd Lester Kinsolving’s broadcast on the evening of January 15 1996, and is used by permission.

FOR MUCH OF ITS EARLY HISTORY, Maryland was renowned for religious tolerance, even during the latter colonial period, when Anglicanism was the established religion. Possibly that was the impression of two young men who came to Maryland, one from Nigeria and the other from the Bahamas. Patrick Delaney, senior warden of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Bladensburg, is resources officer for a chain of restaurants. Felix Ogunba, an accountant born in Nigeria, is St. Luke’s junior warden. Both of these young men are very devout. For they were raised in dioceses overseas where the fervour and dedication of Christian missionaries was devoted to the traditional faith of the Church of England. The very idea of ordaining female priests or bishops was unknown to these missionary planters of the faith. So, it was understandable that the wardens and vestry of St. Luke’s, when they learned that Bishop Dixon was being foisted upon them, informed the diocese: “What you intend to do is not only illegal, but completely unnecessary and very mean-spirited.”

Such a plea from a congregation, which has paid for its church and its upkeep for more than a century and a half-and sent contributions to the Diocese of Washington-was ignored, with all the lofty manner of a British prime minister dealing with a tiresome minor official from the Australian outback.

On Sunday morning January 14, Bishop Dixon came to St. Luke’s-and the result was not bloody or violent, but rather hilarious. For on her arrival the bishopess found that almost all of the congregation had gone on strategic religious retreat. But they left a rear guard: an extraordinary lady named Stella Morabito Green, journalism and international relations major at USC, with a masters in Prussian history, and years of experience as an analyst for the CIA. She and the lady bishop fought the Second Battle of Bladensburg.

Suffragan Bishop Jane Dixon of Washington arrived with some four dozen people from other churches throughout the diocese., ten to fifteen other congregations, she conceded. But there were 75 churches which sent nobody. And of those who joined the lady bishop’s travelling Pep Squad, there were only an average of three per parish. Moreover, those from the 200-member congregation of St. Luke’?s, who she was on hand to visit, came to a grand total of six. The pastor and vestry of St. Luke’?s Church did not lock the doors, or turn off the heat. Instead, in peaceful civil disobedience, they removed the tabernacle from the altar, removed the votive light from the chancel, and locked up the organ. After a rather disastrous beginning, when the bishop giggled and confessed to having selected the wrong hymn tune, rather than the familiar one, they improvised and sounded rather well-while reporters for both The Washington Post and The Washington Times conducted interviews.

The sermon was – well it was nice – although hardly newsworthy, or very inspiring, or even very interesting; but rather a brief variety of verities and stained glass soporifics (which attests to the fact that Episcopal seminary homiletics courses are still not much better than they used to be).

One of the six St. Luke’s parishioners who attended was an elderly smiling man named Taliaferro. His bringing of Wonder Bread and a nice merlot for communion was announced, triumphantly, by the bishop. At this, the head of the diocesan standing committee began a very loud clapping-which the Travelling Band took up at considerable length.

At the door of the church, after the Bishop had kissed and hugged her departing supporters I was able to have the following conversation with her:

Q. How many parishes and missions from the diocese do you count that were represented here today? Would you estimate ten, or 15?

BISHOP DIXON: Yeah, I would say so – Ms Green, please don’t leave, I need to speak to you – I would say about ten to 15, yes. There were people here from this parish as well, you know.

Q. How many would you say?

DIXON: I would say at least six.

Q. Six from this parish? And they have – what is it? 200 communicants?

DIXON: I’m not sure how many communicants they have here. Indeed to ask if I might see the books. Could I please see the books on my visitation? It is my – uh-

STELLA GREEN: I’m sorry that I don’t have them and I don’t have access to them. DIXON: You don’t have access to the books? The service books and other things which I look at when I go on visitations?

GREEN: You understand that this is a traditionalist parish. And you understand our position. I think we’ve made it very clear in many letters. We have a right to this as a traditionalist parish. Other dioceses recognise their traditionalist parishes’ right to exist, and they just basically have a live-and-let-live attitude, and apparently this is not holding true for the Washington Diocese. With 96 congregations, they apparently cannot even allow two traditionalist parishes to live out their days in peace.

DIXON: What you’re saying is that you will not give me the books.

GREEN: I’m not an official of St. Luke’s here.

DIXON: And there’s not one official who could give me access to the books?
GREEN: That’s correct…

Q. Don’t they keep records at Mount St. Alban’s (diocesan headquarters next to Washington Cathedral)?

DIXON: We do have parochial records, but I didn’t go to look those up before I came. They send in an annual report.

Q. Why couldn’t these people have been allowed to worship as they do?

DIXON: I was here for two reasons: The first is the Gospel reason; Jesus said that “All who labour and are laden, come unto me.” And you know the words in St. Paul’?s Letter to the Galatians: “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, we’re all one in the Body of Christ. ” That’s the Gospel reason…And the second reason I’m here is that this is an Episcopal Church. And in the Episcopal Church, people gather around their bishops. We’re not a confederate (sic) of churches, we’re a communion of churches, and all the congregations do belong in the diocese. And the bishop is the head and 1 am the suffragan bishop. I’m one of the chosen and .- consecrated bishops of the church and I’m on an official visitation.

Q. Do you believe that it is wrong for the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church (who together constitute the vast majority of Christendom) not to ordain women to the priesthood?

DIXON: I don’t speak about the polity of the Roman Church or the Orthodox Church.

Q. Would you say they’re sexist?

DIXON: I would say that they don’t allow women to be in their ordained orders. But it’s not my place to speak to their polity .. As I say, the primary reason I’m here today is the Gospel reason. And the reason is that the God I believe in and the God I worship offers himself to all. Thank you very much, I’ve got to go.

When I asked Mrs. Green to comment on Bishop Dixon’s statement, she replied: “What Ms. Dixon doesn’t understand – or won’t understand – is that this is a violation of our rights as a parish.”

Subsequently the bishop of the diocese, without benefit of a reality check about what had just transpired, claimed in a letter to parish leaders that Dixon’s visit to St. Luke’s showed that such things can be done with ‘mutual respect’, and that he expected future visits would be ‘increasingly cordial’.

The following is adapted from a report by Auburn Traycik in the Washington published journal The Christian Challenge.

BY THE TIME BISHOP DIXON made her incursion into into Ascension and St. Agnes in the District three weeks later – again, curiously, in the immediate aftermath of a large snowfall in the area – she might have begun to feel like a party crasher who always arrives after the revellers have departed, save for a few irascible would-be bouncers.
This time, the dimly lit church was not only stripped as it had been at St. Luke’?s, but her arrival for the 10.00am service was greeted by a small but vocal group of outdoor demonstrators protesting her “persecution” and citing freedom of worship as their civil right. And – of the 75 or so who took part in the service – those from the 250-communicant “host” parish came to a grand total of two. Most parishioners had come to the 8.00 am Mass and departed quickly thereafter. Two female congregants (one white, one black, for those keeping PC scores), arriving late for the 10.00am service and unawares, left immediately upon learning that Dixon was present. The priest-in-charge, Fr. Lane Davenport whom Dixon had demanded be present in the nave during the visit upon the threat that Haines would revoke his license-was indeed there. But he spent the entire time in a position of conscientious dissociation from the proceedings at the very rear of the nave, reading Thomas A Kempis.

The president of the Episcopal Synod of America, Donald Moriarty of California, was on hand to support Ascension in its stand. In the preceding week, support had also come in a message from the primate of the Traditional Anglican Communion, Archbishop Louis Falk, and from three ECUSA bishops who endorse women’s ordination – FitzSimons Aillson (retired of South Carolina), John Howe (Central Florida) and Alex Dickson (retired of West Tennessee). The three prelates – now said to have been joined by a dozen or so other bishops issued a letter calling on Washington’s bishops to “?desist” violations of “express and explicit terms and regulations” of the national and international church or “resign”. The letter quotes ECUSA’s 1977 “conscience clause,”? affirming that no ECUSA clergy or laypeople should be “coerced or penalised in any manner, nor suffer any canonical disability as a result of his or her conscientious objection to or support of’? the ordination of women priests and bishops.

Following a January 17 meeting with Dixon, Mr. Dean the senior warden and junior Warden Paul L. Jones had written Haines, the diocesan, an exasperated letter, noting Dixon’s unchanged determination to celebrate Mass at the parish February 4, knowing that it “would grievously pain and violate the consciences of many, we believe most, of our parishioners … We asked why it was necessary to take this action at this time … The reasons which she gave as to the Gospel and Anglican polity were not logical. We are baffled as to why you and she have chosen this confrontational approach…which is so contrary to the spirit of Anglicanism, ” as well as statements by authoritative church bodies. “Furthermore,” the wardens wrote, “the peremptory, authoritarian and insulting tone which [Dixon] adopted in response to [Fr. Davenport’s] attempt to state his views in a courteous manner would be inappropriate in any conversation between two Christians and is outrageous in the extreme when addressed by one who claims to be a Christian bishop to a fellow member of the clergy. We were able to see personally a side of her personality which we had not seen before, and which, we believe, disqualifies her for her position, quite apart from any doctrinal objections.” The letter said the vestry “?has not consented” to Dixon’s visit February 4. In a standing-room-only parish meeting the week before the visitation, Fr. Davenport also revealed that, when he was put in charge of Ascension in 1994, Haines agreed that Dixon would not visit the parish during the priest’s service there. Haines reportedly defends his reversal now by saying he did not think Davenport would be at Ascension so long, but Davenport says Haines had stated his expectation that the priest would be at the church for at least two years (not at all an abnormal duration for an interim today).

The undeterred Ms. Dixon had walked bravely by grim-faced by demonstrators and ascended the steps into the church; there, Ascension’s senior warden met her with a handshake, but said the vestry wished her to reconsider her plans to proceed. When she indicated she would not, Dean told her the vestry considers the visit a trespass to which it does not consent, but that “force is not of God” and that the vestry had chosen not to respond to it in kind by attempting to keep her out. She thanked him, and moved forward toward the sanctuary. Dixon celebrated the Eucharist (apparently according to Rite 1 with some additions) using a small credence table near the altar rail, aided by Fr. Richard Downing of St. James, Capitol Hill, and the Rev. Enrique Brown of Mission San Juan, Washington. Hymns, sung a capella by the visiting congregation, included Amazing Grace, and Let Us Break Bread Together On Our Knees.

Asked, as she descended Ascension’s steps following the February 4 service, how her forced visit to the traditionalist parish jibed with current church policies, Dixon curtly replied: “I believe I am within the tradition of the Church.” She then walked to the curb, hoping to exit the scene as quickly as she had entered it, but – discovering her car had not yet been brought around – found herself at the mercy of shouting protesters for several minutes before she was able to leave. A Living Church editorial termed the action by Washington bishops an “unwarranted attempt to snuff out a theological position recognised as legitimate in most of the Anglican Communion.”? The diocesan unity and collegiality Haines claimed would be gained by Dixon’s encroachment were “no closer to being achieved.”