ACCOKEEK, Md. — An intense legal battle between the female Episcopal bishop of Washington and a conservative Maryland rector who rejects her authority has spilled into a secular courtroom.

Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon's June 25 appeal to a federal court to settle the matter has further stretched the already divided 2.5-million member Episcopal Church.

The dispute began Dec. 13 after Christ Church in Accokeek called the Rev. Samuel Edwards and gave him a contract as its new rector.

Bishop Dixon became bishop Jan. 1, following the retirement of Bishop Ronald Haines. In late February, she met with Edwards. “The majority of the congregation expressed to Bishop Dixon that they were not happy with the election of Edwards,” said Carter Echols, Canon for Congregational Development and Clergy Development for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

On March 6, Bishop Dixon rejected Edwards' call to Christ Church. The bishop's rejection of Edwards stems primarily from his opposition to female and homosexual ordination in the Episcopal Church.

“Father Edwards had written widely about his concerns with the Episcopal Church,” said Echols. “Bishop Dixon had two concerns rooted in Father Edwards' history and writings. One, is that he would assure her that he would not take Christ Church property out of the diocese, and secondly, that he would obey his ordination vows to obey the bishop. To date, she has not received unqualified assurances to that effect.”

According to Edwards' interpretation of Episcopal canon law, the bishop had only 30 days after his Dec. 13 appointment in which to reject the call, but didn't reject it until 53 days later.

Echols, however, maintains that that time period is not improper. “The canon does not stipulate that a decision must be made within 30 days, it simply says that the bishop should communicate with the vestry within 30 days,” she said.

Further complicating the case is the unprecedented move by Fort Worth's Bishop Jack Iker to assume pastoral oversight of Christ Church. Rev. Edwards, originally from the Fort Worth diocese, said that the move is temporary and limited in scope.

In early April, Bishop Dixon visited Christ Church. “The bishop was met at the door by the senior warden who told her that she could worship at the church but could not celebrate,” said Echols.

In response the bishop celebrated with parishioners outside the church, while Edwards conducted his own service inside.

The battle has divided parishioners. George Hanssen, who maintains the parish register, said that between 52 and 74 of the parish's 90 members have been attending church at an alternate location in Accokeek.

Twelve priests in the diocese have filed canonical charges against Edwards, accusing him of violating the “doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the church.

Countercharges have been filed against Bishop Dixon by a collection of priests, retired bishops, and lay people in her diocese accusing her of “intentional, material and meaningful” violation of church law for trying to dislodge Rev. Edwards after the 30-day period.

Edwards also disputes Bishop Dixon's legitimacy, as a woman, to claim authority as a bishop. He said that while he can acknowledge Dixon as his administrator he cannot assent to the proposition that she is a bishop in the line of the apostles.

Why a Secular Court?

Echols said that the Episcopal Church has exhausted all other options and therefore that bringing the case before a federal court was the only way to obtain the removal of a rector who is serving illegally in the diocese.

“We have tried for six months to find a resolution other than going to court. We are not asking the court to make a decision on the canon, but we are asking the court to affirm the bishop's right to decide who can become a rector in the Episcopal Church,” said Echols.

Edwards argues that ecclesial remedies have not been exhausted, and he has asked the federal court to dismiss Bishop Dixon's case for that reason. “Courts do not usually intervene until all ecclesial proceedings have been concluded,” he told the Register. “At present there are two ongoing proceedings.”

An Aug. 23 hearing has been set by the federal court to hear oral arguments.

Catholic observers wonder what precedent might be set by the involvement of the federal court. Pete Vere, staff canonist with the Fraternity of St. Peter who follows traditionalist movements within Christian communities, commented that “civil courts do not usually interfere in Church matters unless the Church neglects to follow its own canon law.”

Therefore, Vere does not see cause for concern.

“One has to recall that the Catholic Church, through the Holy See, is recognized as an international entity,” said Vere. “Instituted by Christ, it has historically overcome any and all attempts by the state to apply undue pressure.”

Notre Dame law professor Gerard Bradley also thinks that the Catholic Church will not be affected by the case.

“I do not think this case an especially important one, from a Catholic perspective, for two reasons,” Bradley said. “One is that the case is not unique. It is pretty well settled in American civil law that, if the civil court can identify from Church materials the locus of a final decision on a matter such as this, the civil court will defer to that church body.

“The second reason is that Roman Catholic canon law leaves little doubt about authority over priestly appointments, and it is the ordinary who has the final say.”

Episcopal watchers such as Vere suggest that if Edwards is rejected, he and his parish could very well end up joining the traditionalist splinter church, Anglican Mission in America.

Another option, said Lee Penn, a writer and a convert from the Episcopal Church who monitors that Episcopal affairs, is that the battle “may disgust some Episcopal members enough to drive them to join the Catholic Church.”

Tim Drake is editor of Catholic.net