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Africa and Arkansas

On 25 April 1998, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of Little Rock, Arkansas reported that a dispute in Little Rock has set a precedent for a dispute in the National Episcopal Church. The story was not carried in their online edition (or, at least, is not in the archives of their online edition) so we cannot provide a link to it, nor can we find it covered by any other online publication. In the United States, the Copyright law permits "fair use" of copyrighted material; in the opinion of your editor the benefit to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of us including the article below are sufficient for me to believe that this use is fair. We at Anglicans Online hope that when you read this well-researched and well-written article you will want to get your library to subscribe to this newspaper.




A disagreement between a "renegade" congregation and its priest in Little Rock and the Rt. Rev. Larry E. Maze, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, has become a precedent-setting case for the Episcopal Church of the United States of America.

And the case may become an international struggle at this summer's Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade conference of the Anglican Communion held in Canterbury, England.

The Rev. Tom J. Johnston, who came to Little Rock uninvited by Maze from the Diocese of South Carolina in January and incorporated St Andrew's Church in February, has had himself "transferred" to Africa with no plans to reside there. Essentially, St Andrew's Church is a parish of the Diocese of Shyira, Rwanda, located in Little Rock.

"We made a conscious decision that it was more important to us to proclaim the love of Jesus Christ to men and women and children than to fight institutional battles, and our brothers in Africa gave us that option," said Johnston, who describes himself and his church as more orthodox than the bishop of Arkansas.

In an April 16 letter addressed to Arkansas rectors and vicars, Maze described what happened when he and his standing committee, the group of clergy and laymen that help the bishop make decisions, planned an April 14 meeting to request that the Bishop of South Carolina, the Rt. Rev. Edward Salmon Jr., recall or discipline Johnston.

"To our utter amazement on April 13 we learned that the bishop of South Carolina had earlier received a request to transfer Mr. Johnston to the Diocese of Shyira, Rwanda, Africa, and on April 6 had complied with the request," Maze wrote. "It seems clear that Mr. Johnston has no intention of moving to Rwanda to carry on his ministry, and that such action was taken only to remove himself from accountability in the American church. In effect, what had been a national dispute involving the integrity of diocesan boundaries, isnow an issue transplanted to the larger Anglican Communion."

Maze declined to be interviewed, but said his April 16 letter stands as his official statement about the situation.

Johnston explained that when a priest moves to a new diocese "he can practice for 60 days without a license. Bishop Maze indicated that he would not license any priest who would come to St Andrew's Church." After the 60-day period the bishop can take the priest to ecclesiastic court for discipline, but Johnston used a "letter dismissory" to transfer to Africa.

The Rev. Donald Nickerson, the executive officer for the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in New York, said, "What we have in the canons is that if a priest wants to move from one parish to another parish, he must receive a letter by his previous bishop to be accepted by the new bishop. It's called a letter dismissory."

Salmon, bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, refused to discuss the letter dismissory. "I'm not going to do that," he said and referred the matter back to Maze. In a Feb. 18 letter from Maze to Johnston to reschedule a Feb. 16 meeting between the two that was canceled by Johnston, the bishop wrote, "I needn't tell you that you are in clear violation of both the intent and the letter of Canon 14, Sec. 4(a)(1) and will soon be in violation of Canon 16, Sec. 2. If your only interest is to have a viable ministry unfettered by further confusion and conflict, I would urge you to renounce Episcopal Orders and let us all be free to continue the Lord's work apart from disagreement. Short of that, we feel compelled to ask your bishop to bring his judgment and disciple to this situation." Canon 16, Sec. 2 is the canon that explains how a priest can practice for two months without a license. Sec. 4(a)(1) of Canon 14 states, "No member of the clergy shall officiate ... in a congregation without the consent of the member of the clergy in charge of that congregation."

"St Andrew's Church initially incorporated as an independent church, and I walked away from my pension. What I was not willing to do was renounce my vows as an Episcopal priest, and that is what Bishop Maze wanted me to do," said Johnston. "It is clear that at that point he had no canonical authority over St Andrew's Church. But the Episcopal Church still had authority over me because I remained a priest in good standing in the Diocese of South Carolina."


Jim Solheim, news director for the Episcopal Church, said, "As I understand it, Johnston was suddenly under the care of another diocese before the diocesan council could proceed. ... I've never seen a similar situation within the church where a bishop outside the country claims oversight of an American priest. There's no precedent for it, and no one knows what it means. It does raise canonical questions."

"I don't think we're in violation of any canon law at this moment. ... The bigger issue for me is that the institution and canons of the church were created for one purpose -- to make sure that the good news of Jesus Christ was proclaimed," said Johnston.

"Some people see this as a move to align some conservative priests in the American church with conservative bishops outside the United States," said Solheim. "The theory is that this would give them some freedom of movement without a diocesan bishop restricting their activities. Others would say this the beginning of chaos."

The Rt. Rev. John Kabango Rucyahana, bishop of the Diocese of Shyira in Rwanda, said matter-of-factly that he accepted Johnston's letter dismissory "because he needed it" and explained his relationship with Johnston as "a relationship in the commitment of preaching the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, which we share in conviction and which we need to further in that conviction."

Also in the April 16 letter, Maze referred to Resolution 72 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference, which states, "This conference reaffirms its unity in the historical position of respect for diocesan boundaries and the authority of bishops within those boundaries..." and "affirms that it is deemed inappropriate behavior for any bishop or priest of this Communion to exercise episcopal or pastoral ministry within another diocese without first obtaining the permission and invitation of the ecclesiastical authority thereof."

Some Anglicans believe that the July 18-Aug. 9 Lambeth Conference is weak because its resolutions are nonbinding, but Solheim said the conference does take the pulse of the worldwide Anglican Communion. "It will also be apparent that the center of power has shifted to the developing world -- especially the Africans. It will be clear that there are some disagreements especially on the issues of sexuality." The Anglican Communion in Africa, Asia and South America is considered more conservative and orthodox than the Episcopal Church and the Church of England.


David Long, manager of the Lambeth Conference in London, stressed that Lambeth does not pass legislation for the Anglican Communion. "The Lambeth Conference passes the resolutions. Those resolutions only have moral authority," he said. Rucyahana said he will attend the Lambeth Conference but doesn't know if Maze will attempt to issue a resolution regarding Johnston's transfer to the Diocese of Shyira. "I would advise you to ask him that question." "We are a mission of Diocese of Shyira in Rwanda, and he will come here to confirm like any other bishop," said Johnston. "We plan to go to the diocesan convention [in Rwanda]. When it's scheduled, we will attend."

"This is not just one isolated fringe bishop, there is support across the entire [African] continent," said Johnston, who has received letters and e- mail from across the United States as news of his transfer spread. "I would say that I've received 50 or 60 letters from priests looking and longing for the same thing for their parishes because their leaders no longer uphold the orthodox faith."

Maze concluded his April 16 letter with, "For the time being there exists in Arkansas a congregation affiliated with the Diocese of Shyira. Its bishop and I will correspond, and in a few months, the Lambeth Conference will convene in England. Undoubtedly, the failure to respect diocesan boundaries will again be on the agenda for the bishops to discuss. We will continue, with input from the national Church, to review this situation as it impacts the largerChurch."

"We don't know what it means," said Solheim. "We've never been here before."

"I believe we're seeing the first wave of a coming reformation," said Johnston.

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