written by Leng L. Lim
Dear Episcopal Family in Christ,
At a time in which many in TEC may face financial pressures, I wish to alert the Church to the presence and actions of ultra right-wing extremist Christian groups, who may want to rent or buy your properties.
This has already happened, quite by accident, to the Sisters of Bluestone Farm, Community of the Holy Spirit, in Brewster New York, when they leased their defunct Melrose School building to Bishop Richard Williamson. Williamson is a twice excommunicated bishop from the extreme fringes of the Roman Catholic Church. He is also a twice convicted Holocaust denier. He is British, and in the UK his organization has been condemned for welcoming and harboring priests who have been accused of sex abuse in both the UK and France.
In both 2016 and 2018 Williamson publicly celebrated Solemn High Mass in buildings at Melrose/Bluestone Farm, and he used this Episcopal Church property to set up a base in New York, under the direction of his protege Bishop Geraldo Zendejas. This base included not only a parish community but also a charter school called the Stella Matutina Academy (SMA).
All of the above came to light somewhat by accident. I, along with some friends, had been renting a building from the Nuns of Bluestone Farm. When SMA arrived later as a tenant and leased a different part of the extensive property, we were glad that the Sisters were receiving rental income. For about three years, a group of uniformed students and their parents arrived daily for classes and, on Sundays, cassock-clad priests arrived to celebrate Masses for their community. These services were entirely separate from the Sisters’ own services, which were held in different buildings on the Farm.
For several years, none of us thought to inquire into the true identity of the SMA. I think it is fair to say that, in general, we all saw this group as “conservative, but nice.” That was certainly how they presented themselves. Then in 2018, a casual web search on “Stella Matutina Academy”, showed two videos of Bishop Williamson celebrating High Mass on the Melrose premises. Firstly, he was filmed celebrating Mass and conferring the sacrament of Confirmation on Pentecost 2016 ; and, secondly, he was filmed presiding at a major celebration in 2018 for the 30th anniversary celebration of his consecration to the episcopacy, to which a large audience had been invited.
Most people viewing these videos would not be aware that all this was happening on Episcopal Church property; however, for anyone who is familiar with the library and gym of the Melrose School at Bluestone Farm, the location of these liturgies was immediately clear.
After I and my friends became aware of the true nature of the movement behind SMA and Williamson’s liturgies we informed both the Sisters and their Episcopal visitor Bishop Allen Shin. It would take more than a year before Bishop Williamson and the Academy would vacate the premises at Bluestone Farm.
While the Community of the Holy Spirit may have accidentally stumbled into this problem of inadvertently supporting anti-semitism and religious extremism, Bishop Williamson and his organizations are not lax, but are, rather, highly organized.
- In 2015, the SMA had been next door in Connecticut searching to purchase a residential house for their school when their identify was discovered, and residents stopped the sale on zoning issues.
- In Sweden, the state supported Lutheran Churches had leased their properties to Bishop Williamson’s organizations. When discovered in 2009, the Swedish bishops apologized for lax governance and supervision.
- In January of this year, the Atlantic Monthly published a story on the take-over of an entire Kansas town by Bishop Williamson’s outfit.
Bishop Williamson was consecrated by the notorious Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who vigorously opposed the reforms of Vatican II. Lefebvre and the bishops he consecrated were all excommunicated. Lefebvre and his bishops went on to create their “Society of St. Pius X” (SSPX), and when Williamson was expelled from this organization (for being too extreme in his views) he formed his own, even more militant group, the “SSPX Resistance.” Both organizations are ultra right-wing catholic groups, opposed to reconciliation with the Jews, to equality between the sexes/genders, to the validity of Protestantism, to dialogue with and respect for all faiths, and to environmental spirituality and activism.
In right-wing Catholic circles, vocal opposition to Vatican II is often a dog-whistle for anti-semitism, including promoting the repugnant belief of Jews as Christ killers. Williamson has attributed WW1 and WW2 to global Jewry, and ten years ago, on public television, he denied the Holocaust and was convicted of this crime by a German court. He appealed, but his conviction was upheld both in 2013 and again this year.
The SSPX and the SSPX Resistance hold beliefs contrary to the Episcopal Church, teaching for example that girls are ontologically inferior to boys, and are not fit for university education, let alone the priesthood. They are virulently homophobic, and strongly opposed to environmental movements, which they often characterize as “paganism.” Some of their beliefs border on spiritual abuse.
In the United States, secular law protects religious freedoms, and thus cannot outlaw Bishop Williamson, his movement, his parish communities, and his schools. However, Episcopalians and TEC, who have taken out countless resolutions at General and Diocesan Conventions against racism and anti-semitism, and for gender justice and safe church, can bear witness to the Gospel by being vigilant, and denying religious extremists the use of TEC property.
Even as TEC faces financial strains, may it continue to be a safe, courageous and vigilant Church, especially at this time when violent racism, Christian right-wing extremism, and something close to political fascism, are publicly active in these United States of America.
The Rev Leng Lim
I am an executive and leadership coach, canonically resident in Los Angeles, and ordained since 1995. A bio can be found at www.lovepowerjustice.com
PS: links may be broken after a time. Key word searches are: Bishop Richard Williamson Holocaust denial CBS news; Stella Matutina Academy Williamson; Newstimes Zendejas; SSPX Sweden racist bishop; SSPX sex abuse Guardian; Atlantic Monthly Williamson Kansas.