Controversy over gay priest troubles a Virginia church Assistant pastor quits to prevent more strife at St. John's in Hampton

April 10, 1997|By NEWPORT NEWS DAILY PRESS

HAMPTON, Va. - Founded by English settlers fleeing the famine and disease of Jamestown in 1610, St. John's Episcopal Church in Hampton has suffered and survived just about every major conflict in American history.

The small, red-brick sanctuary surrounded by a centuries-old graveyard on West Queens Way has withstood the cannon blasts of the Revolutionary War and the fires of the Civil War.

But this past year, another kind of battle - society's warring views on homosexuality - shook the foundation of the oldest English-speaking Episcopal church in the United States.

The revelation last summer that the church's assistant pastor is gay led to months of church infighting, introspection, financial problems and demands by a few church members to expel the gay priest.

The Rev. Richard Bardusch, a 32-year-old Newport News native serving his first priestly assignment as the assistant pastor at St. John's, abruptly resigned in February, saying he wanted to prevent further divisions within the 788-member congregation. Aside from differing attitudes about gay clergy in general, church members disagreed about whether Bardusch was being deceitful when he did not disclose his homosexuality while interviewing for the job in fall 1995.

'There have been charges'

But there is another side to the story that most church members would rather focus on - that this old parish bravely faced the modern debate over homosexuality and learned something from the experience.

"As individual families in the parish, it certainly brought the subject up at our dinner tables, between friends and between different parishioners," said church member Debbie Williams.

Bardusch said that although most church members supported him, he thinks the rifts within the parish would have broadened if he did not resign.

The church's pastor, the Rev. Rodney Caulkins, stressed that most church members did not want Bardusch to leave. But some parishioners have accused their church of being bigoted, based on a minority of members who oppose the idea of gay clergy, Caulkins said.

"There have been charges that this is a bigoted parish," Caulkins said. "I feel St. John's has been open and willing to struggle with something that is an issue with a whole lot of people in society today."

Having a gay priest at St. John's has quelled many church members' fears and misperceptions about homosexuality, Caulkins said. During several church meetings, the congregation learned what the church and the Bible say about homosexuality. Many members also learned to respect each other's opinions.

"Those are some of the wonderful things that have happened because we have had a gay priest at old St. John's - the oldest English-speaking church in America, which most people think is a staid old place with cobwebs," Caulkins said. "It's quite the opposite."

Deciding on disclosure

Caulkins did not know Bardusch was gay until the bishop of the diocese brought it up during a meeting just after Bardusch was hired in January 1996. For five months, Bardusch and Caulkins prayed and grappled over whether to let the entire parish know. Eventually, they decided to avoid the risk of church members finding out secondhand.

Bardusch and Caulkins told the church vestry - a 12-member elected body that helps the pastor see to the spiritual and financial welfare of the parish.

The news spread by word of mouth to most of the congregation last summer.

Church members started pointing fingers at one another. A $60,000 budgetary shortfall was caused, in part, by a small number of parishioners who withheld their pledges because they xTC were opposed to Bardusch.

Caulkins, pastor at St. John's for 16 years, tried to prevent the strife.

Once Bardusch's homosexuality became widely known in the parish, Caulkins organized meetings in October and November to let church members voice their opinions, ask questions and learn why he did not want to fire Bardusch despite some church members' demands. Bishop Frank Vest, the top clergy member of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, was called in to speak at one of the meetings.

The meeting was emotional and at times heated. Several spoke in support of Bardusch and accused opponents of being homophobic. Others called homosexuality sinful and asked Bardusch to resign. And there were several calls for peace within the congregation. The meetings ended as they began - with prayer.

Caulkins explained at the first meeting that Bardusch's ordination and conduct "have been in accord with the church's position: He is a homosexually oriented man who is celibate and whose lifestyle is not scandalous."

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