Some irreverent parishioner had scratched out "Bishop" and scrawled in "Pope," so the headline in one of the local papers splayed out on the counter of Gene's place yesterday read: Pope Sorge to Be Installed.
"Does that tell you anything?" said Gene Blades, the proprietor, cook and reigning presence at the counter-and-grill joint off Rte. 50 where farmhands and Eastern Shore folk gossip over coffee and chicken salad. Lately, the talk of the town has been divided between the drought and the Rt. Rev. Elliot L. Sorge, who was installed yesterday as the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Easton at a ceremony in Salisbury, an hour's drive from Easton.
As Blades put it, slinging a couple of pieces of cubed steak onto a roll: "Most people coming in here are average people. They can't afford to live extravagantly. How can they expect to support a bishop in high style. . . . Most people feel he's not an Eastern Shore man, he's a big city man."
As Bishop Sorge has learned in the past few weeks, the Eastern Shore is a prickly place, especially when the corn is standing brown and bedraggled in drought-stricken fields. Sorge has run afoul of a fair number of Episcopalians in his 8,000-member flock and a quotient of country people who simply worship life on the Eastern Shore, all because of a house and a real estate deal.
It's not just any house, but the bishop's new $295,000 four-bedroom spread with cedar siding. Tucked behind a grove of loblolly pines on 8.2 acres, the bargain included a dock, a boat, a car and 800 feet of shoreline fronting a tranquil reach of a creek off the Choptank River.
Nor was it a simple real estate deal, but a complicated transaction that prompted a group of angry Episcopalian leaders to file a lawsuit last month to block the sale. They have charged the bishop and the church council acted without approval of the governing "convention."
Following his investiture yesterday, Sorge issued a statement calling for a special convention of the diocese in November to decide how the bishop's residence should be financed.
"People miss the point if they think it's just the bishop on the water," said R. Stewart Barroll, an Episcopalian lawyer who filed the suit in behalf of the rector of the Shrewsbury Parish and other Episcopalian clergy. "We don't care where he lives as long as it's done within church laws."
The essence of the arrangement, approved by the diocesian council, was that the church would buy the $295,000 house on Island Creek and give the bishop an option to buy it from the diocese after 15 years. "He could buy it in 1998 for what the church paid in 1983," Barroll said.
The seller, Robert M. Lichtman, a Washington lawyer, agreed to deduct $40,000 from the price as a charitable gift. The diocese borrowed $250,000 from the Bank of Maryland and said it would make up the balance with "surplus funds."
Bishop Sorge agreed to put the $125,000 he expects to net from the sale of his house in New York toward repayment of the loan. The other half would come from the sale of the church-owned residence of the former bishop in Easton.
But attorney Barroll charged that no time limit was set for the completion of the transaction and that the diocese would be "on the hook" indefinitely for $2,187.50 a month in interest.
A court injunction arrived too late to block the sale in August. Bishop Sorge, who said the affair has hurt him, has taken residence in his new house with his wife Majorie and their three college-aged children.
Sentiment in Episcopal parishes throughout the Eastern Shore has ranged from "What's the big deal?" to puzzlement and outrage at the prospect of having to bear the cost of the interest.
As one neighbor of the new bishop said of the interest payments: "Something like that bites heavier into the little man than he wanna stand for."
Last month, Thomas M. Stuhr, a leader in the fight against the purchase, said: "My parish is made up of farmers, and with the drought they're suffering, and these are the people who are going to have to come up with the money."
Diocesan officials maintain the purchase will not affect what parishioners pay to the diocese.
Some of the new bishop's neighbors are annoyed because they think the price the bishop paid was too high and will drive up their assessments. Some Episcopalians have said they will no longer contribute to the church.
And it isn't necessary to be an Episcopalian to have a view on the new bishop and his house by the water.
Down at the Trappe Fire Department where the chief's son Danny was playing in the ambulance, one of the volunteers said: "Talking about it? They're talking about it in New England." And he added: "What does the man need a $300,000 house for, he's just a bishop? I'd run him out of town."
A younger firefighter in a hat that was embroidered with "Quencher Tanker 36"--after the department's truck by the same name--begged to differ. "Nobody talks about religion at the firehouse," he said. "All we talk about is politics, who's running who and fire companies."
As for Sorge, having served as a bishop in Brazil and most recently having worked at the church's headquarters in New York, he said upon moving in that he "was really trying to become an Eastern Shore person. What appeals to me is that I can be a waterman and a farmer at the same time."