Maverick Catholic Schism Develops : Religion: Two clerics who became aligned with the black priest who founded independent congregations have broken off relations with him.

TIMES RELIGION WRITER

The Riverside cleric who made George A. Stallings Jr. a bishop of a controversial church for disenchanted black Catholics and the minister who was to head Stallings' first congregation in Los Angeles have both broken off relations with the maverick priest.

Both moves are among widening signs that Stallings' Washington-based temples may be foundering.

Stallings, a Roman Catholic priest for 15 years, created a furor in the summer of 1989 when he founded the first of his independent congregations with fiery revival-style preaching and defiance of orthodox Catholic teachings and rituals.

Several thousand black Catholics quickly switched over to his Imani Temple in Washington. Branches were soon established in several other Eastern cities, and Roman Catholic leaders feared his revolt might trigger the first major exodus from mainstream American Catholicism in nearly 100 years.

But Stallings' regular followers are now estimated at fewer than 5,000.

Stallings had chosen the Rev. Trevor D. Bentley to open a Los Angeles branch of his African-American Catholic Congregation. But Bentley said last week that he "will have nothing to do with the opening of a temple" and accused Stallings' church of being without "fiscal accountability or doctrinal responsibility."

Meanwhile, Archbishop Richard W. Bridges, who heads the independent American National Catholic Church headquartered in Riverside and who consecrated Stallings as a bishop last year, has repudiated Stallings' ministry. He cited "doctrinal differences" and a power struggle between his and Stallings' church as reasons for the rift.

Although the two church bodies are independent of each other, a symbiotic relationship existed between Bridges and Stallings until last week.

Bridges' American National Catholic Church has about 1,000 members in a dozen parishes scattered throughout the country.

After Stallings started his church, he was excommunicated by Washington Roman Catholic Cardinal James A. Hickey.

Because he wanted to remain within the Catholic tradition, Stallings asked Bridges to make him a bishop because of Bridges' ties to the Catholic heritage.

Bridges' church is part of what is called the Old Catholic Church movement--which dates to a dispute among Dutch Catholics over papal infallibility in 1870. Actions of Old Catholic clergy are considered illegal by the Roman Catholic Church although their ordinations are recognized as being in the historic line of succession originating with the Apostle Peter.

In addition to his Imani Temple in Washington, Stallings has congregations in New Orleans, Baltimore, Richmond, Va., and two in Philadelphia--one pastored by a former Catholic nun ordained by Stallings last month.

The fate of Stallings' other congregation in Philadelphia is uncertain after a bizarre encounter on the night of Sunday, Oct. 13.

Observers said Stallings and Bridges argued at a church service after Stallings elevated the local pastor, the Rev. H. Randolph Caines, to the rank of monsignor. Bridges--apparently without informing Stallings of his plan beforehand--topped it on the spot. He made Caines an honorary bishop in the American National Catholic Church.

According to several people present at the service, Stallings angrily said that Caines, Bridges and Bentley would be excommunicated for their disloyalty to him.

"It will only make him (Stallings) to be a fool if he does that," Bridges said later. "How can he excommunicate me? I never have been a member of his (African-American Catholic) church. . . . He is repudiating my authority only because his feelings are hurt. He is a very proud man."

Only the month before, Bridges had conferred the honorary title of archbishop on Stallings.

In the wake of the unusual events, Caines said his Philadelphia congregation voted Wednesday night to withdraw from Stallings' church and join Bridges'.

Stallings responded Friday through an aide that the situation would be sorted out at a press conference on Tuesday in Washington. The aide, Bill Marshall, said he could "neither confirm nor deny" the threatened excommunication incident in Philadelphia.

Stallings still maintains that his branch temple in Los Angeles will open on schedule with an inaugural Mass to be held in the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Nov. 10. No pastor has been named.

The Rev. Edgar Boyd, pastor of Bethel AME, said his only connection with Stallings' proposed temple had been to "make our church facilities available, as a courtesy."

In a statement, Stallings added that officials of his church were "relieved" that Caines and Bentley were joining Bridges' group. "Unfortunately, Caines--and most recently Father Bentley--have shown more interest in being bishops than the real work of the church for God and the liberation of its people," Stallings said.

Bentley, originally ordained an Episcopal priest and later accepted as a minister in Bridges' church, said he was initially impressed with Stallings and his philosophy that "American blacks should buy into some kind of control." He said he agreed to "be the pastor out here and later the bishop."

But Bentley, who is doing volunteer work for Bridges' church, now criticizes what he and Bridges call "voodoo" rites that Stallings uses at the beginning of his services. This involves an indiscriminate "invocation of the spirits of ancestors" instead of the Christian Trinitarian formula, Bridges explained.

Bentley said he repeatedly asked Stallings for a church financial statement "but none was forthcoming . . . and I was expected to raise all the money" to open the Los Angeles temple.

Carl Fisher, a black auxiliary bishop in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, said he believes few African-American Catholics in Southern California will join Stallings' temple "because they have deep roots within the Roman Catholic Church."

"The divisiveness that's occurring is a small indicator that something is not right with the Imani Temple," Fisher said.

The Rev. Cecil Murray, pastor of Los Angeles' First African Methodist Episcopal Church--where Stallings has been a guest preacher several times during the last two years--said he had not heard about the controversy.

"But the pieces go 'click' and begin to fall into a logical sequence," he said. "Generally speaking, splinters breed splinters. . . . The founder of any group is usually a very strong person and they will cause followers to disagree among themselves."

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