Eviction deadline nears for Groton congregation

Groton - About 30 parishioners of the Bishop Seabury Church gathered for the 10 o'clock service Christmas morning. They took part in communion, offered prayers for others, and sang "Joy to the World" and "Away in a Manger."

And perhaps some silently hoped this would not be the final Christmas service at the North Road church.

The future of the congregation in its church building is uncertain. After eight years of contention with the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut, a decision by the congregation to leave the diocese, and a legal battle over the property, the 135-year-old parish is under court order to vacate the premises by Jan. 4.

The diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas, said Friday he is trying to avoid that end. He said he is not insisting on the deadline and has asked to meet with the lay and ordained leaders Jan. 12, when he hopes to offer solutions that would return the historic Bishop Seabury parish to the Episcopal fold.

But the pastor of Bishop Seabury, the Rev. Ronald S. Gauss, said Sunday that 200 members of the congregation have voted unanimously not to rejoin the Episcopal church. He said Sunday that members also have voted to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court a state Supreme Court ruling that the church and all its property must be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.

About a third of those who attended the last of four Christmas services this weekend lined up to talk about it with a reporter.

"Do we want to leave? Of course not," said Mace Lewis, who played piano and provided music for the parish Sunday with his wife, Laurie, and three sons, Aaron, Andrew and Matthew. "(But) I firmly believe we've done the right thing by standing up for what we believe in."

A theological rift

The legal battle started after Gauss in 2007 led his parish away from the diocese over several disagreements, including the Episcopal Church's ordination in 2003 of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, and the election of a woman as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. in 2006.

The global Anglican Communion, which includes the American Episcopal church, has been divided by those and other issues for more than a decade. In 2005, six Connecticut parishes - including Bishop Seabury - filed but did not win a federal lawsuit against the bishop at the time, the Rt. Rev. Andrew Smith. They sought several million dollars in damages for the alleged violation of their civil and property rights after they tried to break away from his authority when he supported the election of the gay bishop.

The Bishop Seabury parishioners believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible. In 2007, they affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America to remove the parish from the jurisdiction of the American Episcopal church and put it under the oversight of a Nigerian bishop.

A Superior Court judge ruled last year that the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut owns the 6.5-acre church site and its contents. The judge ordered Gauss and his followers to give up the property, but granted them a stay to continue to worship in the church as they appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

But the state Supreme Court unanimously ruled against them. The parish asked the court to reconsider, but that request was denied Dec. 16, and the parish was given 20 days to vacate the property.

Gauss said he expects the bishop to make the same offers he has in the past, one of which, he said, is for Gauss to leave his post. The diocese already has deposed Gauss, who, at age 72, would have had to retire anyway under Episcopal church rules. The CANA group does not have that rule.

Gauss said he has been there 36 years and doesn't intend to go.

He said attorneys for the parish will file a request for another stay to allow the parishioners to continue to worship in the Groton church as the U.S. Supreme Court decides whether it will hear the parish's appeal.

Hope for reconciliation

The disagreement encompasses both legal and theological issues, with the courts acting only on the property matters. Both Bishop Douglas and the parishioners say they'd like to see a spiritual resolution as well.

"What's the pastoral opportunity here for reconciliation?" Douglas said Friday. "Is there any possibility for reconciliation or staying in the church as individual Episcopalians?"

He said he's pursuing several options, starting by inviting the congregation to stay as Episcopalians with him as their bishop. If that doesn't appeal to them, he would offer "delegated episcopal pastoral oversight," meaning finding them a bishop in the Episcopal church with whom they might be more open to having a relationship.

The bishop said if neither of those options - which were first offered before the final state Supreme Court decision - would work, he'd keep trying to come up with others.

He said the diocese and the overall church would be "diminished" without the parish. "The Episcopal Church needs the historic and current witness of Bishop Seabury," he said.

But he also said that doesn't mean the diocese will ignore the court decision.

"I am in conversation with our lawyers, and the fact that we're not immediately moving in fulfilling the court's decision of taking the property January 4 doesn't mean we're ceding our rights granted by the court," he said.

Joe Bielucki, who has attended Bishop Seabury for eight years with his wife, Ginny, said Sunday he's been disappointed by the diocese's stance.

"If you wanted peace, there should have been a dialogue," Bielucki said. "It's not consistent with the Christian faith."

Nicholas Kleiner, a lay leader on the USS Pittsburgh, a submarine based in Groton, said the legal dispute goes beyond Bishop Seabury and the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut. It could have ramifications for other churches involved in similar disputes across the country, he said.

"We're trying to stand the fight because they're facing the same thing," Kleiner said.

Claudette Startz, who has attended Bishop Seabury since 1975, said many parishioners have paid for improvements and renovations to the church. She said the diocese should offer the church compensation.

Laurel Skinner, who has attended the church since 1982, said the lawsuit has been a "long haul" for everyone involved. But the focus is on the parishioners' beliefs.

"Personally, I feel sad, but it's not about the building," Skinner said. "We have a theme: to know Christ and to make him known. No matter what, we'll carry that in our hearts."

jeff.johnson@theday.com

l.mcginley@theday.com

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