Conservative Anglicans Challenge Episcopal Authority

Leaders of the American Anglican Council, the largest conservative network within the Episcopal Church, said the bishops are prepared to minister to traditionalist parishes beyond their dioceses, “with or without permission.”

The network’s bishops “will travel to any parish that asks for them to visit, teach and confirm ... with or without permission of the local diocesan bishops,” said the Rev. Martyn Minns, pastor of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, VA.

The Jan. 12 comment followed Friday’s AAC conference in Woodbridge VA, where more than 3,000 dissenting members rallied in opposition to the formally recognized US branch of the Anglican church – the Episcopal Church USA. The AAC plan to meet again in Plano, TX on Jan. 19-20 to launch the Network of Anglican Communion Dioceses and Parishes.

While Organizers say they do not plan to leave the Episcopal Church, a six-page document obtained and confirmed by the Washington Post on Tuesday showed otherwise.

The document, dated Dec. 28, is addressed to Episcopalians who have contacted the AAC following the openly gay bishops’ consecration Nov. 2. According to the statement, the AAC intends to severely challenge the authority of Episcopal bishops, despite expectations that both civil lawsuits and ecclesiastical charges against dissenting priests will result.

"Our ultimate goal," it says, is a "replacement jurisdiction . . . closely aligned with the majority of world Anglicanism."

After reviewing the document, James Solheim, a spokesman for the national church, called it "very provocative." The strategy it outlines, he said, "is going to plunge us into litigation for decades."

The document outlines a two-stage process. Initially, conservative parishes would announce that their relationship with their diocesan bishop is "severely damaged." They would seek the care of a more orthodox U.S. or foreign bishop but not engage in legal confrontations over church property.

In the second stage, "probably in 2004," traditionalists would seek "negotiated settlements" over property and the right to have like-minded priests and bishops. If settlements cannot be reached, the document says, "faithful disobedience of canon law on a widespread basis may be necessary."

The Rev. Geoff Chapman, pastor of St. Stephen's Church in Sewickley, Pa, and principal author of the document, maintained that liberal bishops who have long preached tolerance are now crushing dissent by threatening parishes and priests who oppose their "revisionist" position on homosexuality.

In such circumstances, he said, disobedience would be "faithful" because the purpose of church laws is to uphold the gospel. "When they are distorted . . . and used to restrict or oppose the gospel, then canon law itself has to be challenged," he said.

The document notes that sitting bishops "hold almost all the cards in property disputes and clergy placement if they want to play 'hardball.' " But, it adds, "we think that the political realities are such that American revisionist bishops will be reticent to play 'hardball' for a while. They have just handed the gay lobby a stunning victory, but are being forced to pay a fearsome price for it."

The 2.3 million Episocopal Church is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. Since November’s consecration of the communion’s first openly gay prelate, 9 of 38 international dioceses broke formal ties with the ECUSA and said they would honor relations with conservative groups within the denomination.

Duncan, the AAC’s president told The Washington Post that the future is “going to be interesting, since we’re claiming to be — we’re acting as — the Episcopal Church, and the other side is claiming it’s the Episcopal Church.”