Hartford, Conn. Nine conservative Episcopal bishops said Thursday that they would take Connecticut's bishop to religious court over his suspension of one priest and threat to remove five others.
The conflict stems from Connecticut Bishop Andrew Smith's support for the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the church's first openly gay bishop. Robinson's 2003 consecration has divided the U.S. Episcopal Church and expanded the rift over gay issues among churches in the global Anglican Communion.
Dubbed the "Connecticut Six," the priests had asked to be supervised by a different bishop because they disagreed with Smith's support for Robinson.
Earlier this month, Smith used his power to "inhibit" one of the six, the Rev. Mark Hansen, and appointed another priest to lead St. John's Church in Bristol.
The inhibition prevents Hansen from leading any congregation in Connecticut for up to six months. If the situation is not resolved by then, Smith can remove Hansen from the priesthood. The other five priests have been under the threat of inhibition since April.
Diocesan officials said Hansen was suspended because he took an unauthorized sabbatical and St. John's had stopped making payments on a loan for its building. Hansen maintains he notified Smith about his plans.
Karin Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the diocese, said officials who took over the church the day Hansen was inhibited found it in financial distress. She said the church had about $20,000 in past-due bills, which the diocese has since paid, and a shut-off notice from the electric company.
In a letter to Smith dated Wednesday, the nine bishops, most from the South and Midwest, said they plan to intervene in the case of St. John's and are prepared to do the same if the five other priests are inhibited.
"We would prefer to find some way other than this deepening battle, but we refuse to allow this recent aggression to go unchecked or unchallenged," they wrote.
The bishops said they are preparing a "presentment," a formal charge filed in ecclesiastical court, charging Smith with "conduct unbecoming" a bishop.
Smith was traveling Thursday and was unavailable for comment, but he responded to the bishops in a letter posted on the diocese's Web site.
"Your public letter to us is filled with assumptions, conclusions and emotional, highly charged language," Smith wrote. "In it you have passed judgment on a brother bishop and a diocese without even attempting to ascertain the facts. ... I regret that none of the bishops who signed the letter had the wisdom or courtesy to call before launching this broadside."
Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh, one of the nine, said the charge the bishops plan to bring against Smith stems from diocesan officials changing the locks and accessing computer files at St. John's.
"We would have to say that the seizure of the property and of the computers - those things strike us as matters that are unbecoming a bishop," Duncan said. "That's not the kind of behavior one expects of a bishop."
The bishops also plan to raise money for any lawsuits the six priests may file or face, provide care to St. John's and other parishes, and license Hansen for functions in their dioceses. Duncan says their key concern now is making sure Hansen has an income.
Similar situations have played out across the country in response to the rift over gay issues. Parishes in Alabama and Kansas split from the church and sought instead to associate with the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, which traces its roots to the Church of England. The Episcopal Church, with 2.3 million members, is the communion's U.S. branch.
The other bishops who signed the letter were James Adams of western Kansas; Peter Beckwith of Springfield, Ill.; Daniel Herzog of Albany, N.Y.; John Howe of central Florida; Jack Iker of Fort Worth, Texas; Edward Salmon of South Carolina; John-David Schofield of California's San Joaquin Diocese; and James Stanton of Dallas.