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Pastor’s defrocking splits church

Posted: October 10, 2013 11:36 a.m.
Updated: October 11, 2013 5:00 a.m.

How many battles have been fought in the name of religion?

More than we can count, of course, ranging from Old Testament Biblical struggles to modern-day terrorism in which radical Muslims believe killing everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs will earn them a special place in the hereafter.

(Which it probably will, only a different place than the one they imagine.)

But today we’re not talking about Samson vs. the Philistines, or David vs. Goliath. We’re on a smaller scale, referring to churches across this country which are ripped asunder by internal strife.

There’s nothing unusual about that, of course. After all, the folks on the Mayflower headed west to get away from those in the mother country who wanted to dictate to them what they should believe.

Church battles are nothing new. Right here in Kershaw County, a large percentage of churches were born after a split from another church.

Someone was angry over what the preacher did, or somebody didn’t care for a particular policy, or maybe sharp words were exchanged over the construction of a new fellowship hall.

On the Maine island where Wife Nancy and I spend time, there’s been a particularly painful -- and public -- controversy at the United Church of Christ (UCC) in the village of Seal Harbor. I’ll tell you about it, and let you make up your own mind.

Background: Maine is the most unchurched state in the nation, with fewer of its residents claiming membership in a church than any other state.

At the UCC in Seal Harbor, pastor William “Mac” Bigelow was suspended in 2010 after a church review panel found he had sexually abused a teenage boy over an extended period about three decades ago while Bigelow was pastor of another church.

Bigelow, officials also found, had continued to harass the victim for years, and had “actively sought contact with the original victim and other forms of unwanted contact with the victim and the victim’s family over the ensuing years.”

The report did not mention the word “stalking,” but it sounds pretty clear.

The church panel said at the time Bigelow could have his suspension lifted after three years if he successfully completed “a program of growth,” focused on “understanding ministerial boundary issues and the long-term effects of sexual abuse.”

Don’t know about you, but that seems to me to be pretty generous to the pastor.

In May of this year, the committee voted to reinstate Bigelow as pastor as of Aug. 3, but later revealed he had “allegedly violated the terms of his suspension.”

Church officials revoked his license to be a minister, which is called defrocking.

But it has split the church down the middle.

Committee leaders scheduled a meeting at which church members could share feelings and hash things out, but indicated the congregation was going to put the incident behind and focus on the future.

That hasn’t satisfied Bigelow’s supporters. Many feel he’s being mistreated.

By the way, the pastor was never charged with a crime because the statute of limitations had expired by the time his actions came to light.

In a recent letter to the island’s local newspaper, 33 UCC members questioned the “seemingly irrational actions” of the committee, writing that they were “shocked and perplexed” by Bigelow’s defrocking.

They went on to say they were “confounded by the committee’s decision to damage the life of a man with a long, devoted and distinguished record.”

Some have said the church hasn’t displayed a proper spirit of Christian healing and charity towards Bigelow. So, you will probably agree that this is not a normal church fight. Child molesting among priests has been in the news, but this situation is more than a vague, faraway story in a newspaper. Some of the members of this church are friends of mine. They have gone through an agonizing time.

I read what he apparently did, which sounds horrific, and I read the letters of those who seem to believe he is little short of sainthood, and I am more convinced than ever that maybe, just maybe, life has passed me by.

I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

(Portions of this column were drawn from stories in the Mt. Desert [Maine] Islander.)

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