Smells, bells & tension at Easter

In the Anglo-Catholic tradition, the last rites of Holy Week offer a procession of images both glorious and sobering -- a drama painted in sacrament, scripture, incense, chants and candlelight, fading into the darkness of a tomb.

It is a time for soul searching. That will certainly be the case this year for Father David L. Moyer of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, a sanctuary for Anglican traditionalists on the Philadelphia mainline. He chose to go on retreat at a convent, rather than enduring the pain of watching these services from a pew.

"I am a liturgical nut and I am not the kind of person who can just watch," he said. "I just couldn't take that emotionally, right now. I'd be thinking, 'Now we need to do this' and 'Now it's time to do that.' It would be agonizing, not being at the altar."

Moyer cannot serve at the altar for a simple reason -- Pennsylvania Bishop Charles E. Bennison, Jr., has forbidden him to do so. The bishop has "inhibited" Moyer from his sacred duties, and is proceeding toward deposing him as a priest, because the rector of Good Shepherd has repeatedly denied Bennison the right to preach and celebrate the Eucharist in the parish.

Why would a priest risk his career by locking out his bishop?

"Charles Bennison has removed himself from the church," said Moyer. "He has stepped outside the borders of the ancient Christian faith and of the Anglican tradition. ... I would say that he is in fact a heretic, a false teacher."

Both sides agree there is more to this standoff than power, $2 million in endowment money and the keys to a beautiful Gothic edifice. The bishop and his acolytes believe Moyer wants to split the diocese and the U.S. Episcopal Church. They note that Moyer leads the North American branch of Forward in Faith, a global network of Anglican conservatives.

Also, Moyer is a candidate to become an at-large bishop for traditionalists nationwide, following an upcoming election and consecration that would be held without the blessing of the American hierarchy. Moyer has strong ties to Third World archbishops and is scheduled to meet with several only days before a tense April 10-18 gathering of the Anglican primates in Canterbury.

Doctrine is at stake, too. Moyer responded to Bennison's March 1 "inhibition of ministry" letter with a letter urging the bishop to defuse the crisis by publicly affirming four ancient Christian doctrines. These were the uniqueness of Jesus as "the only way to obtaining eternal salvation," his "bodily Resurrection," the "supremacy of the Holy Scriptures as the inspired Word of God" and that "sexual intimacy and genital relations are only properly expressed in a monogamous, heterosexual marital union."

Bennison has not responded even though he is an outspoken, articulate advocate of changing church teachings on sex and salvation. During a 1997 forum, which was taped, the bishop was asked why he could embrace such sweeping doctrinal revisions. The church wrote the Bible, he responded. "Because we wrote the Bible, we can rewrite it."

Meanwhile, the diocesan standing committee has stated the obvious: no bishop wants to have the rector of a powerful parish publicly calling him a heretic.

"A diocese cannot function without mutual love and respect for duly instituted authority," stated the committee, in its report calling for disciplinary action against Moyer. "Since a Bishop's authority is sacramental, a parish must receive its Bishop to preside at the Holy Eucharist for it to be in communion with the Bishop. The parish must be in communion with the Bishop to be in communion with the diocese. The parish must be in communion with its diocese in order to be in communion with the Episcopal Church and, through it, the Anglican Communion at large."

But for Moyer, modern laws and ecclesiastical structures are not as important as the Bible and centuries of church tradition. Without a common core of doctrine, there can be no communion, he said. That is why he will fight on, even if that means sitting in a pew this Easter.

"I believe that souls are at risk. I really do believe that," he said. "We cannot stand by and watch people being led into hell."