Wearing a scarlet miter and colorful vestments, Anglican Bishop Frank Lyons of Bolivia stood before an Evanston church Sunday and called the faithful to kneel at the altar.
"If there is anyone in the congregation of The Church of Christ the King ... who would like to come forward and reaffirm their faith, we invite you now," he said.Lyons, 51, is not simply a visiting missionary however. He is overseeing this and 28 other congregations from Virginia to San Diego that have broken with the Episcopal Church over their interpretations of the Bible, a dispute that was spurred by the election of an openly gay bishop in 2003.
Lyons, a Wheaton College graduate, is emerging as a rallying figure for conservatives in the Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church. Saying the leadership has turned its back on these people, he is offering a haven to grateful parishes but angering church leaders who accuse him of using the denomination's divisions to promote himself.
His parishes, not wishing to separate from worldwide Anglicanism, turned to Lyons, an American who supervises four churches in Bolivia. Eventually, they plan to establish their own leadership.
Lyons has embraced what some congregations call "the Diocese of Bolivia's Northern Deanery" with zeal. In defiance of U.S. bishops, he ordains priests, lays hands on the sick and shrugs off complaints that his actions contravene church law and common courtesy. He ignores letters from other bishops asking him to stay out.
On Sunday, Lyons ordained a deacon in Evanston, entering the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago to perform an act that normally would be undertaken by the local bishop. He also is scheduled to meet with other area churches.
"It's schismatic," said Chicago Bishop William D. Persell. "I would have no intention of going into his diocese, for example, and ordaining somebody."
Lyons and his flock, which sought his oversight, say a split between the 2.2 million Episcopalians and much of the rest of Anglicanism's 77 million membership is inevitable.
Conservatives, often described as "orthodox," say the Bible is the word of God and is authoritative on issues of life and salvation, including matters of sexuality. Liberals say the church's understanding has evolved beyond ancient scriptures, and that Christians need to be accepting of homosexuals.
Lyons said the issues go beyond sexuality, to matters of doctrine. "We believe that the American church has treated scripture cavalierly, and that we really don't know who they believe Jesus is," Lyons said.
While many of the Episcopal Church's 7,200 parishes and missions are content with the church's direction, the rebellion is broader than one bishop. The conservative Anglican Communion Network includes 900 parishes, and 200 of them are receiving oversight from non-U.S. bishops or archbishops.
On Friday, a congregation in the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, that boasts the largest attendance in the Episcopal denomination--some 2,200 worshipers each Sunday--announced that it will leave the church and answer to the bishop of Peru.
Lyons brings a missionary's energy to his parishes, said Bill Atwood, a former Episcopal cleric who left to serve in the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of the Americas, which encompasses Bolivia and Peru, among other countries.
"The churches that he's working with are saying, `I've never had a relationship with a bishop like this before,'" Atwood said. "`Now I've got a bishop who comes and asks me what books am I reading, how's my prayer life, what are we doing to reach people with the good news?'"
Lyons sat recently for an interview at a home near a church he oversees in Lapeer, Mich. Wearing a clerical collar and cross superimposed with a map of Bolivia and a descending dove, he spoke passionately but chuckled often when discussing the foibles of his church.
He was born in Maryland in 1954 and was raised in a charismatic Episcopal parish, serving as an acolyte and singing in the choir. At age 17, he felt his calling when he read the Bible passage of 1 Timothy 3:1, which states that "if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work."
"My first response was, `Well, you can't mean that, Lord, because I know I'll never be a bishop in your church,'" Lyons said. "Because our church, St. James, was in constant conflict with the diocese on biblical issues."
At Wheaton College from 1973-77, he met his wife, Shawnee, and received bachelor's and master's degrees. (Two of their five adult children attend the college.) In 1980, he received a master's degree from Nashotah House, a Wisconsin seminary.
After Lyons left Nashotah, he says, the Diocese of Washington refused to make him a priest because of his belief in the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus--teachings that many liberals treat as parables.
"I said, `That's fine, because I believe the Lord is leading me overseas,'" Lyons recalled.
The Diocese of Washington says Lyons' theology had nothing to do with his rejection. Spokesman Jim Naughton said Lyons has used this to paint himself as a victim.
Lyons eventually was ordained in Ecuador, where he served as a missionary. After a break during which he obtained a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., Lyons returned to Latin America. He was named bishop of Bolivia in 2001.
The Southern Cone became known in conservative circles in 2004 when it limited contact with the Episcopal Church because of the ordination of gay clergy and other issues.
The Episcopal Church's election of a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori, as presiding bishop upset conservatives this year. Some were troubled by her gender, others by her support for gay ordination.
Many orthodox bishops in the United States, Kenya and Uganda ordain women priests, and a woman heads one of Lyons' American churches.
But Lyons doesn't ordain women priests.
"I would have a problem with having a woman spiritually in charge of the church, based on the view that normally a man is the spiritual head of the house," he said.
Critics find this intolerant. Rev. Susan Russell--president of Integrity, an advocacy group for gay Episcopalians--said Anglicanism has always contained theological differences and can do so now.
"It's purely an indication of just how far the radical fringe in the Episcopal Church will go in order to have their own way, in order to create a church, frankly, that is free of women and gay people," she said.
Lyons said the denomination is out of touch with the worldwide church.
"Unless someone comes and lends a helping hand," he said, "there won't be any Anglicans left in North America, because the Episcopal Church is about ready to get thrown out on its ear."
The Evanston parish ended up with Lyons after a church conference at which Rev. Geoff Holt sat next to Lyons.
"What we were looking for was a bishop who was American, who understood American culture, who understood what was happening, but also was faithful, a believer, followed to the word of God, and wasn't part of the system," Holt said.
Naughton, of the Diocese of Washington, questions the involvement of a bishop from a diocese of only four churches.
"This is not a man who was noticed by anyone as a great spiritual leader until he said, `You know, I can insert myself into this controversy and make a name for myself,'" Naughton said.
But Lyons' U.S. parishes say they sought him out as an ally in a troubling fight.
Rev. Steven Dewey was once rector at an Episcopal church in Lapeer, east of Flint. But he left with 117 of his 125 members to worship at a former mortgage broker's office, calling their new congregation St. Matthew's Anglican Church.
Dewey, who has terminal cancer, sees the Episcopal Church's struggle in stark terms. It wasn't hard to leave a denomination where he has heard bishops refer to the Christmas story as a myth. What pains him is that some parishioners didn't come along.
"Leaving some of the folks behind was a very difficult thing because from my perspective, it's a salvation issue," Dewey said. "It puts their souls in jeopardy when they walk through the doors of that place."
In time, Lyons said, he won't be needed here, and he can focus on Bolivia. For now, he has no intention of avoiding American dioceses. Not while the fault lines are opening worldwide.
"This is roll time," he said.
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