Newmarket, Ontario - In the Christ the King Graceland Independent Anglican Church of Canada, "Rockin' Reverend" Dorian Baxter presides with the sideburns and singing of Elvis Presley to attract the wayward to Jesus Christ.
Equal parts entertainer, activist and preacher, the 52-year-old Baxter - who also goes by Elvis Priestley - does it his way, singing Elvis favourites with a Christian twist.
"Well it's one for the Father, two for the Son, three for the Holy Spirit and your life has just begun," he starts to the tune of Blue Suede Shoes, wrapping up the chorus with: "You can do anything but don't turn Jesus away."
His church is labelled independent because Anglican church elders frown on the Elvis-themed antics, and Baxter held Sunday's inaugural service with 200 supporters in a Newmarket veterans hall, on the northern fringe of the Toronto metropolitan area.
While not defrocked, Baxter was forced out of one Toronto-area church and denied a licence to perform Anglican weddings, with Bishop Ronald Ferris of the Algoma diocese calling the mix of Elvis and church functions in poor taste.
Baxter sports a thick, curly mane of combed-over black hair with muttonchop sideburns, and while he conducts services in the robes and collar of a minister, he changes into a jumpsuit afterward to perform as a well-known Elvis impersonator.
In a broad British accent picked up during his early childhood in Kenya, Baxter explained how he combined his Elvis schtick with his Anglican faith at his first ministry in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the north shore of Lake Superior, in 1984.
The music attracts people to the church and Christ, Baxter said, noting that Elvis himself traced the roots of rock music to gospel hymns.
"My message to the bishops is they should buy a couple of Elvis's gospel CDs and let's talk about this," he said. "They might as well get used to it. I'm not leaving."
Sunday's 80-minute service included Anglican standards such as the Lord's Prayer and Onward Christian Soldier, along with a sermon based on themes from the letters in Elvis' name and the classic Elvis expression of gratitude - "Thank you, thank you very much" - spoken five times, especially after taking the collection.
"We cannot guarantee we can give you a tax-deductible receipt at this time," he told the crowd reaching into pockets and purses, saying the church needed nine members to apply for official status and hoped to have that many after the service.
The most overt Elvis reference came when Baxter sang Where Could We Go But To The Lord, a gospel number covered by Presley in 1968, with the preacher dropping Elvis-like to one knee, pointing upward, for the chorus.
Clapping and singing when prompted, the congregation loved it.
"He's an absolute blessing," said Nancy Lacasse after driving the 60km from Mississauga to see Baxter, who has performed at a family wedding and parties in her home.
Several spoke of how Baxter helped them through tough times, ministering to dying loved ones, or meeting him through Masonic organisations and other groups he has assisted.
"If he feels he is right, I don't know anybody who will dig his heels in deeper," church treasurer Harvey Street said.
Regarding his Elvis-inspired ministry, Baxter clearly thinks he is right. He offered a personal commandment to the Anglican bishops and others who condemn him: "Don't be cruel to a heart that's true." - Sapa-AP