PHILADELPHIA — Although Episcopal leaders in the Philadelphia region are urging him to resign, long-suspended Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. told them Tuesday that he intended to stay at the helm of the five-county Diocese of Pennsylvania.
At a meeting at Episcopal Church House in Society Hill, "he made it clear to us he would resume his responsibilities," said the Rev. Glenn Matis, president of the standing committee that has run the 55,000-member diocese during Bennison's nearly three-year absence.
It was the 66-year-old bishop's second day at work since the Episcopal Church charged him in October 2007 with mishandling and concealing his brother's sexual abuse of a minor three decades earlier.
A church court found him guilty in 2008 and ordered him defrocked and deposed as bishop. A church appeals court last month concluded that he had engaged in "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy," but that the statute of limitations on those charges had expired, clearing the way for his restoration.
In a letter released Monday, however, the standing committee wrote that it did "not believe that Bishop Bennison has the trust of the clergy and lay leaders necessary for him to be an effective pastor and leader of the Diocese of Pennsylvania."
For years before his suspension, the committee quarreled with Bennison over diocesan finances and other matters, and had asked him repeatedly to resign or retire.
Monday's letter suggested his absence had not helped matters: "We believe that it would be in the best interest of the diocese that Bishop Bennison not resume his exercise of authority here."
Matis declined Tuesday to speculate on future relations between Bennison and the committee. "It's too early to tell," he said. "It's the first time I've seen him in two years and nine months."
When it became apparent in their meeting that Bennison intended to stay, Matis said, committee members did not broach the question of resignation, but instead "updated him on issues relating to the diocese."
While declining to comment on the committee's letter or meeting, Bennison issued a statement Tuesday saying he had complimented them on their work in his absence and had asked for their prayers for "healing and reconciliation."
He also said Assisting Bishop Rodney Michel, who conducted the bishop's sacramental duties in his absence, had agreed to stay on indefinitely.
Public reaction to Bennison's return has been largely negative. Opposition was voiced by most of the 300 members who turned out for an Aug. 8 meeting at the Philadelphia Cathedral to discuss his return.
Several prominent clergy have also gone on record urging him to resign.
"Your continued involvement as bishop will only return God's community in this place to the state of distrust and division that existed prior to your" suspension, the Rev. Frank Allen, rector of St. David's Parish in Wayne wrote to Bennison.
The Rev. Timothy Stafford, rector of Old Christ Church in Center City, also publicly called on the bishop to resign or retire. "My strong belief is that your return will do more harm than good, create more anger and less reconciliation, and hinder, not advance, the church's mission in our diocese," he wrote.
At St. Clement's parish in Philadelphia's Center City neighborhood, opinion has been mixed.
"I'm just glad he's back as bishop," the Rev. W. Gordon Reid said Tuesday. The charges against him had been "trumped up" and the sentences unfair, he said.
Reid added that he had no opinion on how the diocese might fare under Bennison's continued leadership.
On St. Clement's parish blog, one parishioner wrote, "I, for one, am happy he decided to come back."
"I don't know what to think," another wrote. "All I know is that I am upset. ... I will try to give him (Bennison) the benefit of the doubt."
And from another: "Bishop Bennison should have been removed from office years ago, when the extent of his ineptitude, self-centeredness, heresy, and lack of leadership became evident."
For George Whitfield Jr., a member of Trinity Parish in Swarthmore, the very debate over Bennison's return seemed "un-Christian."
"I read (the standing committee's) letter," he said in an interview Tuesday. "What was Christ about but forgiveness and love? ... There was no forgiveness or love in that letter."