By Robert Stowe England
May 22, 2002
CLINTON, Maryland -- Fr. Samuel Edwards, rector-elect of Christ Church, Accokeek, said he was "not downcast" by the decision of the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reject his appeal of his ouster by a federal district court in Maryland last November 30.
Fr. Edwards acknowledged that aside from some minor irrelevant points, the ruling "was a complete defeat" for his appeal. Even so, no decision has yet been made on whether or not Fr. Edwards and the vestry of Christ Church will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Nothing has been decided, "Fr. Edwards said. "We are still digesting the decision."
The court's ruling was based on its conclusion that the Episcopal Church is hierarchical and that, as such, a bishop is the final authority. The court noted that the Episcopal Church has done nothing to challenge Dixon's decision to reject Fr. Edwards as rector in March 2001, long after the 30-day review given bishops under the canons and constitution of ECUSA. The court also noted that the church's Review Panel's decision last September, if it had gone against Dixon, may not have been binding.
Referring to revisionists who have the reins of power in the diocese, the national office of the Episcopal Church, and its House of Bishops, Fr. Edwards says, "After today, their position has gained considerable strength. I will not be surprised to see them take this and run with it." The Diocese of Washington posted the decision on its web site shortly after Nalls learned of the decision from the Associated Press.
The usual protocol for court decisions is that attorneys for both sides are informed of a decision before it is made public.
Fr. Edwards said the decision was beneficial it one sense. "It provides a greater deal of clarity" about the authority of bishops, essentially confirming that bishops can interpret the canons as they wish and pretty much "do any thing they please."
Fr. Edwards said he was surprised by the court's decision, which was unanimous. "I thought we had a case that was very, very strong." He points out that the court itself raised the question of whether or not there was diversity of jurisdiction sufficient to allow the case to be brought in the federal courts.
Fr. Edwards says he "has no idea about the potential fallout, noting that God can write straight lines with a crooked stick."
"In some ways if this is a federal precedent defining the nature of the Episcopal Church, it should probably cause all traditionalist types on the Episcopal Church to think how much longer they can endure under such a regime."
He says the decision potentially sets ECUSA bishops up as infallible popes. "It is hardly progress to exchange one infallible pope for another pope, or rather hundreds of infallible popes who contradict each other," Fr. Edwards.
It is unclear how the injunction prohibiting Fr. Edwards from conducting religious services will apply after June 1, when Acting Bishop Jane Dixon is no longer ecclesiastical authority in the Diocese of Washington.
"It was awarded to her in her role as Ecclesiastical Authority," notes Fr. Edwards, and not as an individual. Thus, her rights under the injunction that was upheld expire June 1. This also suggests, says Fr. Edwards, that perhaps the rights are transferable to Bishop-elect John Chane, who will be consecrated on June 1 and installed as the eighth bishop of Washington on June 2, although this is by no means clear.
The court's ruling noted that federal district Judge Peter Messitte's original decision last November 30 ousting Fr. Edwards and barring him from the property at Christ Church Accokeek, either by omission or intention, did not and does not apply to St. John's Pomonkey, a chapel under the jurisdiction of Christ Church, Accokeek.
The court remanded the case to Judge Messitte to determine if his decisions prohibiting Fr. Edwards from holding services 300 feet from Christ Church was meant to be interpreted as 300 feet from the church building itself, or 300 feet from the Christ Church boundary line.
When asked why the decision did not make Fr. Edwards downcast he replied,
"I've read the end of the book and we won."