Metropolis: Wednesday, August 20, 2003
‘The eyes of the world are on us now.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
The Fires of Intolerance

A local Episcopal rector walked on his church’s flag to protest ordination of a gay bishop.

By KEN SHIMAMOTO

It seemed like a normal Sunday when the congregation at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Richland Hills arrived for the 9 a.m. Holy Eucharist on Aug. 10. But then things took on a decidedly bizarre turn, for a denomination whose history has been marked by tolerance rather than pulpit histrionics.

Services were running late that day when St. Michael’s rector, Father Deuel Smith, marched in, strode down the center aisle, and, according to several sources, hurled the Episcopal church flag onto the floor in front of the altar. He then proceeded to walk back and forth across the flag while announcing that the day’s program would not come from the Book of Common Prayer for the Episcopal Church. Several times during the service, the priest and members of the processional walked back and forth over the flag.

During his sermon, Smith announced that he had placed black tape over the word “Episcopal” on the church’s signs. He told his flock that St. Michael’s was no longer an Episcopal church, that he was no longer an Episcopal priest, and that the word “Episcopal” would never be spoken in St. Michael’s again. He encouraged them to wear black ribbons and sign a statement of withdrawal from the Episcopal church. He said that he himself would only wear purple vestments — normally worn as a sign of penitence during Lent — because of the state of his former church. And henceforth, he said, St. Michael’s would send no more money to the Episcopal Church U.S.A.

Dr. Ann Tucker, a parishioner, was so disturbed by the spectacle — which she characterized as “emotional terrorism” — that she reported the details in a letter to Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, head of the American Episcopal church. She called on Griswold to appoint a new bishop for Fort Worth, “to come here to truly establish the Episcopal church in this place.”

Smith’s actions were one of the more extreme storms spawned recently by the Aug. 5 decision of the Episcopal Church’s general convention, meeting in Minneapolis, to allow the election of the Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, as bishop of the New Hampshire diocese.

In the Fort Worth area, Bishop Jack Leo Iker set the tone with a furious letter read to all the churches in his diocese Aug. 10, repudiating the national convention’s decision. It’s the kind of reaction that observers have come to expect from the ultra-conservative Iker, one of three American Episcopal bishops who still steadfastly refuse to ordain women as priests 27 years after the general convention opened the door to women in the Episcopal clergy. And some are placing part of the blame for Smith’s actions at Iker’s door.

Despite Smith’s actions, which many in his congregation reportedly found disturbing, the war thus far has been mostly one of words. However, the leaders of at least one area church believe that anger at the decision — or anger at one priest’s opposition to it — has led to arson.

Across the country, the reactions of Episcopal bishops and congregations to the national church’s decisions have varied from acceptance to outrage. Some church leaders saw it simply as a continuation of the Episcopal tradition of inclusiveness.

In a monthly memo to his diocese, Nebraska’s Bishop James Edward Krotz, for instance, wrote, “What the resolution really does is recognize what has been going on in the Episcopal Church for years....The resolution simply describes what has been happening in some communities and declares that such activities do not exclude these folks from our communion.” Bishop Robert M. Moody of Oklahoma went even further. The New Hampshire diocese “did a bold thing in electing Reverend Gene Robinson,” he wrote. “They have seen the humanity in a gay man and they have decided that his humanity is more important than his gayness.”

Iker’s letter to local congregations was very different. “I repudiate and disassociate us from the decision to consecrate an openly gay man as a Bishop, and I forbid our priests to bless same-sex unions under any circumstances,” he wrote.

The Fort Worth bishop met with his priests last Saturday, before leaving on vacation, and could not be reached for comment on Smith’s actions.

However, in a statement to the news media, his spokesperson Suzanne Gill said, “Emotions are high right now among people on both sides of this issue. Regrettably, a few individuals are acting on feelings of anger, and other are fanning the flames of intolerance by responding with statements of condemnation. As Episcopalians, we need to remember that the eyes of the world are on us now.” She said that the bishop was aware of the occurrence at St. Michael’s, and that “things are much more calm there now.”

Last Sunday, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in downtown Fort Worth took out an ad in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, calling the national church’s consent to Bishop Robinson’s election “unconscionable.” St. Andrew’s is “different ... intentionally Evangelical and unashamedly Biblical,” the ad said.

Episcopalians who support the election of Bishop Robinson say they fear censure from fellow parishioners if they voice their opinions. “That’s the problem with established religion,” said St. Michael’s parishioner Tucker. “Since the time of Christ, people have been arguing over property and inclusivity. At this point, anything healing that can be done is great.”

As alarming as Father Smith’s actions might have been to members of his flock, they pale in comparison with what happened at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Graham, in Young County. Early on the morning of Aug. 6, the day after the general convention gave its consent to Bishop Robinson’s election, Holy Spirit was vandalized and its vicar’s office set on fire. Police responding to the scene discovered evidence of forced entry. Destroyed in the fire were a desk that the Rev. Scott Wooten had inherited from his grandfather upon graduation from seminary and stoles that were given to him by his childhood parish priest. The vandals left a message on the wall: “God and Jesus love Homosexuals.”

Then on Aug. 17, the church was vandalized again and another fire was set. According to Fort Worth diocese spokesperson Gill, “The parish hall and kitchen are a total loss, [and] there is more damage to the office and church.” The case is under investigation by the Graham police and fire departments and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

In a letter published on the Fort Worth diocese web site, Wooten characterized the attack on his church as “a hate crime, probably; committed against orthodox Episcopalians,” adding that “the thought of an active persecution crossed my mind when I decided to take a stand against Biblical revisionists, but it turned very personal when it hit my church.”

Graham Police chief Jim Nance said investigators are following up on several leads, but that he would release no further information until the investigation is complete.



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