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Bishop's return puts church in a quandary

The pews were filling at Boothwyn's Trinity Episcopal Church last Sunday when the rector and vicar found themselves in a quandary.

Episcopal Church Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. confirms a young congregant at Trinity Episcopal Church in Boothwyn.
Episcopal Church Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. confirms a young congregant at Trinity Episcopal Church in Boothwyn.Read moreRON TARVER / Staff Photographer

The pews were filling at Boothwyn's Trinity Episcopal Church last Sunday when the rector and vicar found themselves in a quandary.

Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. was making his first parish visit in the Diocese of Pennsylvania since 2007, when he was suspended for ignoring his brother's sex abuse of a teen girl decades ago. Acquitted by a church appeals court over the summer, he was back in charge.

Minutes before Bennison was to process into the sanctuary, the two priests lugged the oak bishop's chair across the chancel and placed it at the bottom of the altar steps.

They studied it, exchanged whispers, then hoisted it up the stairs to the altar.

Again they studied it, scratched their heads, and carried it back down.

The scene was emblematic of the question vexing many in the Episcopal Church:

Where does Bishop Bennison belong?

From within his Philadelphia-area diocese, and well beyond, come increasing calls for the 67-year-old prelate to retire or be removed - even as he insists he will not go.

Bennison "is more likely to deepen divisions and discredit the church than he is to bring healing or advance our common mission," Bonnie Anderson, president of the policy-making House of Deputies, wrote this month to the denomination's 2.2 million members nationwide.

Even before Anderson's rebuke, at least five rectors or vestries in the diocese - comprising 143 parishes in Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties - called on their bishop of a dozen years to step down.

So did the 10-member diocesan standing committee, which ran the diocese in Bennison's absence. It told Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori that Bennison "does not have the trust of the clergy and lay leaders" and asked her "to secure [his] retirement or resignation."

Her spokeswoman declined to say whether a resignation request was on the agenda for the House of Bishops' six-day annual meeting, which began Thursday in Phoenix - with Bennison in attendance.

Before leaving for the meeting, he said he would not step down until his retirement age of 72, even if resolutions were passed asking him to do so. "It would have made no sense to go through all that I went through," he said, "and not come back."

Episcopal law has no provision for removing a bishop whose relationship with a diocese has deteriorated, Anderson said in an interview. But she predicted that such a canon would be considered at the next general convention.

"We elect our bishops," she said. "We should have a mechanism to remove them."

Bennison said he had received "voluminous" letters of support from congregants. Last Sunday he got a warm welcome at Trinity, a mission parish for Kenyan immigrants. He preached, clapped to its exuberant Swahili hymns, confirmed nine teens, distributed Communion, clasped hands with all 110 worshipers, and joined them for lunch in the church hall.

"We are happy he is back," said Anne Muthoga, wife of the rector, the Rev. Domenic Ndai. "A flock without its shepherd will go astray."

Later, though, Bennison acknowledged that the response within the diocese to his return had been "very complex, very complicated." He blamed the appeals court's finding that he had indeed committed a removable offense - but too long ago to be charged with it.

That leaves him, he said, "under a cloud" of suspicion.

In suspending him in 2007, the church alleged that Bennison hadn't protected a girl in his California parish from his brother John's sex abuse in the 1970s and had concealed the abuse. In 2008, a church court found him guilty on both counts and ordered him deposed.

In July, however, an appeals court of eight bishops ruled that, although Bennison had failed to protect or comfort the victim, the statute of limitations on his conduct had long since expired.

In an interview soon after he was restored to his post, Bennison called the denomination's efforts to depose him "Machiavellian," the charges against him "Kafka-esque," and his suspension "craziness." Church leaders wanted him out, he surmised, because of his sometimes-divisive leadership style and controversial financial priorities.

Bennison conceded he should have acted decisively when he became cognizant of the behavior of his brother, a parish youth minister. But he insisted he should not have been forced from office because of it. Like nearly all clergy in the 1970s, he was untrained for such situations, he said, and the canons used to charge him were not adopted until 2003.

During his 33-month exile, he began each day with Mass and Communion at St. Clement's Parish in Center City. He "got to know my children and grandchildren better," worked out, studied theology and law, and read Franz Kafka's surrealist novel The Trial, about a man sentenced for an unexplained crime.

He also read two books about Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army falsely accused and exiled in 1894 for treason. "The commandant rips everything off his uniform," Bennison said, shaking his head in wonder, and recalling the abruptness with which he had to turn over his office keys, cell phone, and computer.

His wish now to serve out his time as diocesan bishop "is not an ego trip," he said. "I think I'd always regret that I did not finish what I started."

What he hopes to achieve is vague, but seems to revolve around preparing his diocese for a new era of Christianity.

"The Episcopal Church is a small but great church," he said. But with fewer young people identifying themselves by denomination or attending church, Christianity must look toward a "deinstitutionalized" model of faith.

Denominations, including his own, should build partnerships and share resources, he said - not compete for members, prop up failing congregations, or hold on to vacant buildings.

"That's just not good stewardship," he said.

"If I had all the time to do whatever I wanted," he said, he would devote himself to interfaith dialogue and the young people of the diocese. In that vein, he plans to revive a summer camp project in Maryland to which he committed millions of dollars before his suspension. But if it proves infeasible or too controversial, he said, "I won't push it."

He also intends to leave much of the decision-making to diocesan boards and committees that, he conceded, "are working much more harmoniously" since he left.