Churches Announce Deadline for Split; Episcopal Priests Say Five Congregations Will Realign in January Even If Bishop Doesn't Help

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Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Five congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Florida will align themselves with overseas Anglican bishops in early January whether or not Bishop John Howard negotiates the details of the transfer, two First Coast priests said Wednesday.

The congregations originally announced their intentions in October and had hoped to negotiate the terms of "disengagement" with Howard in the weeks since.

The Revs. Neil Lebhar and Sam Pascoe made their comments Wednesday from what they described as frustration over the bishop's refusal to discuss property ownership issues with them and from a concern about an "imminent threat" by Howard to take control of the congregations.

Howard is the spiritual leader of the Jacksonville-based diocese that has 32,000 Episcopalians in 77 congregations spread over 25 North Florida counties.

The churches' attorney sent Howard a letter Monday proposing details of the transfer and expressing disappointment that requests to meet with the bishop have gone unanswered.

A spokesman for the Jacksonville-based diocese said the bishop is not threatening the churches, that property can be discussed on a limited basis and that it would have been pointless to meet before the proposal was submitted.

"Now that we have what they call a proposal, we'd be glad to sit down and talk with their representatives," said the Rev. Canon Kurt Dunkle, Howard's chief of staff.

The congregations will go ahead with their plans by early January "unless the bishop makes a compelling case that would mutually benefit him and us," said Lebhar, rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Jacksonville.

The congregations seek to align themselves with overseas Anglican bishops who share their opposition to the Episcopal Church USA's 2003 election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. …

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