Air is grave, stakes high in Episcopal heresy probe Retired prelate could face charges for ordaining gay man

February 28, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WILMINGTON, Del. -- In a cathedral hall turned ecclesiastical courtroom, nine purple-shirted Episcopal Church bishops began yesterday to consider whether a bishop who ordained a gay man as a deacon should become the first person in 72 years to be tried by the church as a heretic.

"The Lord be with you," said Bishop Edward Jones of Indianapolis, the court's president, using a traditional Christian invocation to open the proceedings, held in the wood-paneled great hall of the Cathedral of St. John. "And also with you," responded the nearly 200 people gathered for yesterday's preliminary hearing.

Among them was Walter Righter, the 73-year-old retired bishop of Iowa, who was accused last summer of teaching false doctrine, the definition of heresy, for having signed a statement that backed the ordination of homosexuals. The bishop was also accused of violating his own ordination vows by ordaining a gay man as a deacon.

The charges against Bishop Righter were contained in a presentment, a formal accusation, signed by a quarter of the church's 300 bishops.

Despite the gravity of the accusation, the court's morning and afternoon sessions began with the Lord's Prayer, and the one-day hearing was marked by largely polite exchanges -- about Scripture, church teaching and the divine order of human sexual relations -- between the court of bishops and lawyers for and against Bishop Righter.

In verbal style, if not in substance, it resembled a hearing before the Supreme Court, with the bishops in the role of justices, often breaking into the lawyers' arguments to pose searching questions.

But beneath the courtroom decorum lies a widespread perception within the Episcopal Church that the stakes here are very high, both for the unity of the 2.5 million-member denomination and for the peace of the wider Protestant world.

Most divisive issue

No issue has proved so divisive within U.S. denominations in recent years as how to regard homosexuality and, in particular, whether to ordain noncelibate homosexuals as clergy. Most denominations do not permit such ordinations and some have expelled congregations for hiring homosexuals as clergy.

Episcopalians have debated the ordination question for two decades. In 1979 the church's bishops passed a resolution that such ordinations were "not appropriate."

But since then some bishops, usually acting without fanfare, have ordained gay men and lesbians as deacons and priests, in the belief that the resolution lacks the status of church law.

In essence the court has now been asked to decide a legal issue: whether the Episcopal Church has a doctrine that prohibits the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals.

The bishops are scheduled to discuss the matter in private over the next two days and are not expected to rule this week. But if they decide that such a doctrine exists and that the 1979 resolution is legally binding, then the court will proceed with a formal trial of Bishop Righter, who ordained the Rev. Barry Stopfel as a deacon in the Diocese of Newark, N.J., six years ago.

At that time Bishop Righter was an assistant to the Newark bishop, John Shelby Spong, an outspoken supporter of ordaining homosexuals. Bishop Spong did not attend the hearing.

Prosecution arguments

In the morning session Hugo Blankingship Jr., the Fairfax, Va., lawyer representing the 10 bishops who drew up the original charges against Bishop Righter, said, "This court has to decide whether that's an enforceable resolution or not." Noting current divisions among the church's bishops over the issue, he said there was no other church body but the court that could do it.

Arguing that traditional Christian teaching permitted sexual relations only within heterosexual marriage, Mr. Blankingship said the debate over ordination of homosexuals was a clash between "secular mores and Christian moral values." The way the church responded to the debate would determine whether it would be a relevant force within society in the future, he said.

But in the court's afternoon session, Michael Rehill, chancellor of the Newark Diocese, serving as Bishop Righter's lead counsel, argued that the church lacked any doctrine barring ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, which therefore made it impossible for the bishop to be a heretic.

The church's will

The entire issue, Mr. Rehill said, remained open to discussion, as evidenced by open disagreements among bishops during official meetings in recent years. Ordination of noncelibate homosexuals could be explicitly prohibited by an amendment to the church's canons, its laws, "if this were the will of the Episcopal Church to do so, but it is not," he said.

After the court adjourned, Bishop Righter, joined by Mr. Stopfel, who has since been made a priest, met with reporters in the cathedral's small and ornate chapel. The bishop said the hearing was "much more of a judicial process" than he had expected.

He was asked how he would feel if the case came to trial and he were convicted, an outcome whose penalties could range from formal admonition to his being deposed as bishop. The bishop responded, "It wouldn't change my faith in God." He added that he believed that the church "needed a lot of work, a lot of care, a lot of renewal."

Turning to Father Stopfel, who stood beside him, Bishop Righter said he had not simply ordained a gay man. "I ordained a qualified man," he said, "one of the most qualified I'd seen in the Episcopal Church."

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