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6 Episcopal priests warned of ouster

HARTFORD -- Connecticut's Episcopal bishop has warned six priests in the state who opposed the election of the first openly gay bishop that they could be removed as rectors of their parishes by Friday.

Bishop Andrew D. Smith said in letters sent to the priests that they had ''abandoned the communion of the church," which would mean the priests would no longer lead their parishes. The priests could later be defrocked.

According to Smith's letter, the dispute between the bishop and the rectors was put before the Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese, which comprises clergy and lay leaders. The group concluded on March 29 that the six rectors were not in accordance with church canons and were out of communion, The Hartford Courant reported yesterday.

The six churches have clashed with Smith since 2003 when he voted for the election of the Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the US Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop.

The Rev. Christopher Leighton, rector of St. Paul's Church in Darien, is one of the six priests who received a letter from Smith.

A statement that was circulated April 3 to the St. Paul's congregation said Smith accused Leighton, ''without explanation, of having abandoned the communion of the Church, and he proceeded to threaten further action which would bring harm to Father Leighton, our parish, and our mission." Leighton said Smith is imposing ''spiritual gag orders."

''The real story is our freedom to speak and our freedom to practice our faith is what is being inhibited," he said.

Leighton and the other rectors represent conservative parishes that opposed Robinson's consecration. The six churches have since tried to break away from Smith's authority and be supervised by another bishop.

The churches wanted to be considered for the so-called delegated oversight as a group, but Smith wanted to work separately with each. The rectors also have sought assurances that they would be succeeded by conservative pastors if they leave their parishes.

The Rev. Mark Hansen of St. John's Church in Bristol said he and the other priests have done nothing to warrant removal.

The other Connecticut rectors who received notice from Smith are the Rev. Ronald Gauss of Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, the Rev. Gilbert Wilkes of Christ and the Epiphany Church in East Haven, the Rev. Don Helmandollar of Trinity Church in Bristol, and the Rev. Allyn Benedict of Christ Church in Watertown.

If an agreement is not reached between Smith and the six priests, the rectors will first be prevented from performing their duties at their churches. After several months, the process to defrock the priests could begin.

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