Pennsylvania Diocese Bars Priests of Anglican Mission in America

Episcopal News Service. June 6, 2001 [2001-145]

Ed Stannard, News Editor of Episcopal Life

(ENS) Bishop Charles Bennison has formally barred two priests from conducting services in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and demanded that another breakaway parish turn over its property.

The Rev. Philip D. Lyman and the Rev. Kenneth Cook were cited as having "abandoned the communion of the Church" and were forbidden to officiate in the diocese as of May 25.

Bennison's action came after Lyman, Cook and some of the 350 members of St. John's, Huntingdon Valley, announced May 20 that they were renaming themselves St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church and seeking affiliation with the Anglican Mission in America under Charles Murphy, a bishop of the Church of Rwanda. Murphy attended what Lyman described as "an informational meeting" on May 19. Bennison inhibited Lyman and Cook under Canon 4.10.1.

A second traditionalist parish, St. James the Less in the East Falls area of Philadelphia, was ordered to turn over its property to the diocese after mediation ended without a resolution. The parish and its rector, the Rev. David Ousley, said in 1999 that they were leaving the Episcopal Church.

In a letter to St. James the Less, diocesan chancellor William C. Bullitt said the request for the parish's property "is based on the clear fact that the actions taken by your clients in 1999 were an express violation of the terms of the Articles of Incorporation and, among other things, a violation of the Canons of the Episcopal Church."

Walking away

Lyman and the 360-members of St. John's avoided a property dispute with the diocese when they decided to abandon the church and rectory rather than fight Bennison's effort to evict them, according to a June 5 story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Bennison said he plans to install new clergy, organist and office staff by June 10.

"We're going to walk away, the chief reason being theological," Lyman told the Inquirer. "We do not believe it would be good stewardship of our time or money, nor an especially good witness to get embroiled in court battles. We do not want to be looking back and be distracted from these other things." Lyman would not say where the congregation would worship or where he, his wife and his five children would live.

The parish had offered to sell the church building for $1 million but Bennison rejected the offer. In a statement issued by St. John's, senior warden Robert Wisniewski said $1 million was the fair-market value of the property and that "the parishioners believe that the diocese has a moral responsibility to allow those who built and maintained this church to keep it."

Meg Cave, communications officer for the diocese, said there were historical and legal reasons not to accept the parish's offer.

"This congregation was set up by people who assumed there would be a tradition and a legacy of Episcopal worship there for future generations, so we want to honor that," she said. It's the diocese's position, also, that once St. John's left the Episcopal Church, that the property would revert to the diocese.

A price to pay

In a June 3 statement, Lyman said, "We understood the implications of our recent actions and that there would be a price to be paid for our refusal to compromise faith and conscience. . . . Their rejection of our offer was a great disappointment, if not a complete surprise. Moreover, it seems to us both senseless and unnecessary. Now, instead of a boost to the diocesan budget, they will inherit largely empty buildings, which will prove costly to maintain. In our turn, we must leave this place, which we love, which we have cared for and which, in our eyes, is sacred."

In a statement, the diocese said it took the steps after negotiations with both parishes had broken down, despite its efforts to find a reconciliation.

"On several occasions, we have extended additional time for the parishes to comply with various requirements under the Canons," Bennison said in his statement. "The recent actions of these two parishes now require additional steps to protect the interests of our church members and the communities in which we minister."

Asked whether the statement means his role as an Episcopal priest in Pennsylvania is formally over, Lyman told the Inquirer, "It sure looks like it to me."

Cave said of the conflict with the two parishes, "We're saddened that a member of our family has chosen not to be a member of the family any longer. ... But they've made that decision so what you do as with any family member is you respect that decision but certain things have to happen because of it."

Putting up a fight

Unlike St. John the Evangelist, the 125-member Church of St. James the Less is considering fighting the request to turn over title to its property and make an accounting of all income and assets by June 15.

"We still hold the title, the deeds. The diocese never put in any money here," the Rev. David Ousley, rector, told the Inquirer. "The reason God has called us here is to be faithful here. The ministry requires the property; our school would be forced to fold if we had to move. . . . The other [reason] is we think they do not have either a moral or legal right" to take the property.

After a 72-day mediation period expired May 1, Bennison visited St. James the Less and delivered a letter to the congregation urging them to accept an official visitation from him. He was not acknowledged by Ousley. On May 10, the diocesan council declared the parish under "missionary administration."

St. James the Less and St. John's are among seven traditionalist congregations in the diocese who oppose the ordination of women and non-celibate gays and lesbians and same-sex unions. They are particularly opposed to Bennison because of his liberal views on sexuality.