Attendees at the 1997 Elvis festival in Collingwood, Ont., renew their vows before Rev. Dorian Baxter, who claims to have brought ‘tens of thousands of people to the Lord’ through his Elvis ministry.
Elvis Priestley, a.k.a. Rev. Dorian Baxter, says the Anglican church is done steppin’ on his blue suede shoes. Mr. Baxter, a schoolteacher, Elvis imitator and Anglican priest in Newmarket, Ont., says he is fed up with the treatment he has received by the Anglican hierarchy and has started a new church, the Graceland Independent Anglican Church.
Graceland church held its first service in the legion hall in Newmarket on Jan. 5 – days before The King’s birthday – with Mr. Baxter delivering a five-point sermon based on the letters in Elvis’ name.
“E is for everlasting life, L is for agape love of Jesus Christ, V is for the vitality of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, I is for the inspiration that God gives us everyday, S is the great salvation in the blood of the lamb,” said Mr. Baxter.
More than 200 people attended the 90-minute inaugural service, jostling with scores of media who also turned out.
Mr. Baxter has been at odds with the church ever since Bishop Ron Ferris of the diocese of Algoma sent him a letter in 1998 asking him to relinquish his ministry; the bishop also revoked his licence to perform marriage ceremonies.
“I wrote back to him and told him that he should relinquish his orders as a bishop, too.” Mr. Baxter said.
In another letter last summer, Bishop Ferris asked Mr. Baxter to disclose details of the marriage ceremonies he continued to preside over. “He never answered the letter.” Bishop Ferris said in an interview.
Canon law expert Archdeacon Harry Huskins of the diocese of Algoma said that the Anglican church is reluctant to defrock a priest, a decision which can be appealed or misused. Instead, a bishop will withhold a licence to perform certain functions. “De-
frocking,” Archdeacon Huskins said, “almost always only happens on moral grounds, or contumacy. That’s a fancy word for defiance of a bishop’s order.”
He noted that using a bishop’s court to defrock is very expensive, “and then the decision could be appealed to the Anglican provincial court, which in our case, Ontario, has never met in its entire history.”
Last April, Mr. Baxter said his invitation to be keynote preacher at an annual Masonic divine service in a Toronto Anglican church was revoked at the request of the diocesan bishops. “No one at the diocesan office would return my phone calls,” he said. It was particularly difficult, he said, because he has been a Freemason for more than 20 years and was Worshipful Master of his lodge in 1980.
Although forbidden to preach at that service, Mr. Baxter said he attended in full Elvis regalia. “Everyone was outraged when I didn’t preach. A whole family had driven quite a distance to hear me preach. It was quite embarrassing.” He said he thought that incident is what stirred media interest.
“Perhaps I should write the bishop a thank-you letter. My bookings have gone way up.”
Although his home is now within the diocese of Toronto, officially Mr. Baxter is still a priest on leave from the diocese of Algoma.
Mr. Baxter said he has raised more than $100,000 with his Elvis act for both the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches in recent years.
Mr. Baxter said the Elvis shtick, which has taken him around the world for performing and speaking engagements, started in 1996 after his two daughters persuaded him to enter an Elvis contest in Collingwood, Ont. Two years later, his Grade 8 class gave him the moniker Elvis Priestley.
Mr. Baxter said the fuss originated when the media reported that he was performing weddings and funerals in Elvis regalia, something he denies doing.
“For weddings, I do a regular wedding for them, and it’s at the reception I will change into my Elvis costume and sing some songs for them,” he said.
He takes along a United or Baptist minister to proclaim the couple husband and wife; he does not charge for the service but asks for $100 for his United or Baptist colleague. In fact, a licensed minister must accompany him since his own licence was revoked.
“I am not in violation of the canons and if the bishops would just call me I would be able to explain that to them.”
Archdeacon Huskins responded, “Provincial law says that a minister of religion can have a civil marriage licence provided they are also able to perform marriages within their denominations.”
Mr. Baxter does not have that.
The self-described ‘Rockin’ Reverend’ insists he is faithful to church regulations. “I have been a true blue loyal Anglican all my life. My father was head choirboy for Norwich Cathedral in England,” he said, adding that he can trace his Anglican roots back to the 1400s. “I have never departed from the 39 articles (of faith) of the church.”
After immigrating to Canada, he was ordained in 1983 in Toronto’s St. James Cathedral. “I was invited to go north to Algoma, and I accepted,” he said.
Bishop Ferris said that he has spoken with Mr. Baxter about his Elvis ministry in the past and that Mr. Baxter uses a letter from him in his promotional packages for his Elvis Priestley act. He told Mr. Baxter that he felt that mixing Anglican teaching with an Elvis ministry is in poor taste. The addition of another minister at a marriage ceremony makes no difference to him.
“From the church’s point of view it doesn’t matter (if they are there), he still requires permission of the bishop to conduct worship,” said Bishop Ferris.
Mr. Baxter refuses to give up his Elvis ministry or to relinquish his holy orders. “Through my Elvis impersonations I have brought tens of thousands of people to the Lord who normally would not have had anything to do with Jesus Christ,” he said.
Mr. Baxter said he hopes to start a federation of independent Anglican churches in Canada. “I see myself as not leaving the church at all but continuing the true Anglican church’s position, from which the present hierarchy has departed.”