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COURT DISMISSES CHARGES AGAINST BISHOP
24 May 1996 11:36:25
TITLE:COURT DISMISSES CHARGES AGAINST BIS
May 24, 1996
Episcopal News Service
James Solheim, Director
COURT DISMISSES CHARGES AGAINST BISHOP WALTER RIGHTER OVER
ORDINATION OF HOMOSEXUAL
BY JAMES H. THRALL
(ENS) A controversial legal process that threw an international
spotlight on the Episcopal
Church's struggles over the place of homosexuals in the ordained ministry came
to an apparent
conclusion May 15 as an ecclesiastical court ruled that retired Bishop Walter
no church law or "core doctrine" when he ordained a non-celibate homosexual
man as a deacon.
Because Righter signed a statement supporting the ordination of
and ordained the Rev. Barry Stopfel, now rector of St. George's in Maplewood,
as a deacon in 1990, 10 bishops charged him in January, 1995, with "holding
and teaching . .
violating his ordination vows.
A seven-to-one majority of the bishops sitting on the Court for the
Trial of a Bishop
ruled, however, that there is "no core doctrine prohibiting the ordination of
homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship with
a person of the
same sex." Likewise, the court stated that it did not find "sufficient clarity
in the church's
teaching at the present time concerning the morality of same sex
relationships" to support the
charge that Righter violated his ordination vow to uphold the discipline of
At several points in the decision, read before a hushed and attentive
audience of nearly
200 in the sanctuary of the Cathedral Church of St. John in Wilmington,
Delaware, the bishops
made it clear that they were throwing the issue back to General Convention,
Church's chief legislative body.
And the court took pains to address what they called the pastoral
concerns related to their
decision, calling for "mutual respect and understanding" by those holding
different opinions. It
urged other Christian communions--many of whom face the same difficult
issue--to realize that
the decision was not establishing policy for the church.
WHAT IS CORE DOCTRINE?
At issue in the case was exactly what church doctrine is protected by
the church's canons
on clergy discipline, the court stated, as the bishops in the majority took
turns reading sections
of a summary of their 27-page decision. The majority ruled that only "core
to the central salvation event of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection is
by the canon on teaching false doctrine. While other church teachings might be
under the canon, that protection has to be specifically spelled out, the
Without clear General Convention action one way or the other, the court
"this issue will not be resolved and the church unified in its faith and
practice by presentments
and trials, nor by unilateral acts of bishops and their dioceses, or through
the adoption of
proclamations by groups of bishops or others expressing positions on the
The court was also clear in limiting the scope of its decision. "We are
whether life-long, committed, same gender sexual relationships are or are not
example with respect to ordination vows," the court stated. "We are not
rendering an opinion
on whether a bishop and diocese should or should not ordain persons living in
sexual relationships. Rather, we are deciding the narrow issue of whether or
not under Title IV
a bishop is restrained from ordaining persons living in committed same gender
Signing the majority opinion were Bishops Edward W. Jones of
Indianapolis, the court's
president; Robert C. Johnson of North Carolina; Donis D. Patterson, retired
bishop of Dallas;
Cabell Tennis of Delaware; Douglas E. Theuner of New Hampshire; Arthur E.
retired bishop of Connecticut; and Roger J. White of Milwaukee.
THREAT TO CHURCH UNITY?
In a dissenting opinion, Bishop Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota argued
for a broader
interpretation of doctrine, maintaining that a 1979 statement of the General
ordination of non-celibate homosexuals "not appropriate" embodied
authoritative doctrine. The
majority interpreted that resolution as only a recommendation.
"The bottom line is," Fairfield argued following a review of biblical
verses with apparent
references to homosexuality, "any homosexual activity of any kind is
Two other bishops of the court--Roger White and Donis
Patterson--concurred with the
majority, but stressed in a separate opinion that ordination of non-celibate
homosexuals is not
therefore permissible because it is not supported by scripture, the corporate
decision of the
church or the Book of Common Prayer. For bishops to act without that authority
is to "preempt
the corporately discerned and fixed teaching of the church," and to "threaten
the unity of the
church," White said.
A ninth bishop, Frederick Borsch of Los Angeles, withdrew from the
court after his
impartiality was challenged by the presenting bishops following the ordination
of a non-celibate
homosexual in his diocese after the court held its first hearing.
DECISION BRINGS CELEBRATION AND DISMAY
With obvious relief following the conclusion of the two-hour session, a
called the 16-month legal ordeal "invasive," saying that "it's invaded my
life, my wife's life and
the lives of my kids." Righter performed the ordination of Stopfel while
serving as assistant
bishop in Newark following his retirement as bishop of Iowa. He now lives with
Nancy, in New Hampshire.
Righter said that, while the decision may encourage some bishops to
homosexuals, other bishops considering such ordinations may wait for the
actions of the next
General Convention, meeting in Philadelphia in July, 1997.
His attorney, Michael Rehill, maintained that the decision cleared the
way for other
ordinations of non-celibate homosexuals without establishing it as the policy
of the Episcopal
Church. "What the court said today is, there is no restraint on the right and
power of a bishop
to ordain" non-celibate homosexuals, he said. "It's not saying it's OK; it's
saying it's not
Stopfel, who attended the two-hour court session with his partner, the
Rev. Will Leckie,
a United Church of Christ minister, said, "I feel very proud of my church
that the ruling will "let the people of this church continue to work on their
As one of the court bishops noted, Stopfel said, "We should not be
taking each other to
court, we should be taking each other to God in prayer. So we've closed the
something adversarial and now we can spend more time developing relationships
DISAPPOINTED, BUT NOT SURPRISED
The celebration of Righter and his supporters, who were gathered in
first few rows of
pews on the left side of cathedral as the decision was read, was matched by
on the part of Church Advocate A. Hugo Blankingship and those who supported
presentment, seated on the right.
Only two of the bishops who brought the original charge or
of Central Florida and James Stanton of Dallas--attended the session. They
made little comment
before leaving the cathedral immediately after the session's close, choosing
not to attend a
scheduled press conference. Saying they were disappointed but not surprised
with the ruling,
Howe said no decision had been made on whether an appeal would be filed. The
bishops may appeal the decision on the first count on teaching false doctrine
to a second court
within 30 days. Should that second court reverse the first, Righter could
still face ecclesiastical
In a statement released the following day, the 10 presenting bishops
called the decision
"stunning" though predictable. "In a single pronouncement it has swept away
two millennia of
Christian teaching regarding God's purposes in creation, the nature and
meaning of marriage and
the family," the statement claimed. The decision also jeopardizes efforts to
ecumenical relations with other communions, such as the Roman Catholics,
Lutherans, it said.
Raising what they called the "hard and inescapable question" of "where
do we go from
here?" the presenting bishops announced that they would hold a press
conference in Dallas, May
28, to give their answer.
EARLY REACTION IS MIXED
Organizations and individuals throughout the church were quick to
either hail or condemn
"By disregarding the church's doctrine of marriage, this court has
Episcopal Church to still more anarchy and conflict," warned the Rev. Todd H.
executive director of Episcopalians United, a conservative organization
opposed to what it
perceives as the liberal trends of the church. "This ruling is a tacit
validation of homosexuality,"
he said. "Both Holy Scripture and The Book of Common Prayer clearly teach the
Christians are to reserve sexual intimacy for the sacrament of marriage. The
homosexuality is a flagrant violation of long-held Christian belief."
He cautioned that "Episcopalians will remember this ruling when they
choose where to
devote their energies and their finances. With this ruling the Episcopal
Church as a national
entity will continue to fragment and devolve."
A spokesman for the Episcopal Synod of America, an organization of
Episcopalians, stated that it would not recognize the court's decision and
warned of schism. The
synod, said the Rev. Samuel Edwards, executive director, "takes seriously the
requirement that we separate ourselves from those who deny the Gospel."
On the other hand, the national board of Integrity, an organization
which supports gay
and lesbian Episcopalians, called for "mutual reconciliation and healing," and
said that "the
church is now in a position to fully embrace the ministry of its lesbian and
gay clergy." Integrity
hopes that "the decision will aid in evangelism by our church, not only in the
lesbian and gay
community, but in the broader community as well, especially among the young,
who long to see
a loving church reaching out to their complex world."
DECISION SEEN TO UNDERSCORE INCLUSIVENESS
Bishop Otis Charles, the only openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church
dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, praised the
saying, "The dismissal of heresy charges against Bishop Walter Righter lifts
the spirits of
thousands of gay and lesbian Episcopalians." He contended that the decision
upholds a growing awareness that a `don't ask, don't tell' approach has no
more place in the
church than in the military."
Drawing a parallel between the struggles over homosexual ordination and
women, a statement from the Episcopal Women's Caucus said, "We especially
rejoice with our
lesbian sisters and gay brothers in this affirmation of the gift of their
ministries in our church."
The caucus "gives thanks that the church is not now compelled to drive out
large numbers of
faithful and effective clergy who are lesbian and gay along with the bishops
them," the statement noted, adding that "God calls human beings to God's
service, and the
church ordains human beings, not categories."
BROWNING AND CHINNIS RESPOND
Bishop Frank Griswold of Chicago cautioned against interpreting the
court's actions as
"a victory in as much as the question of homosexuality in the life of the
church is a question that
is far from being resolved." It continues to be "extremely important ... to
listen with care and
respect to the various voices which continue to be a part of the process of
Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning praised the court for its "thoughtful
work, and, like Griswold, stressed that "we will all be diminished if this
action is thought of in
terms of winners and losers." The whole church will be blessed, he said, "if
we see this as
another significant step on a difficult path of discernment. The court has
shown the world an
Anglican way of seeking a common mind."
He also noted that "to our great credit, our church does not hesitate
to deal openly and
responsibly together on the difficult issues of our common life, of which
sexuality is one."
Pamela P. Chinnis, president of the General Convention's House of
underscored the court's message that "our General Convention is responsible
for resolving issues
of this sort." No other group, "not a court, or the House of Bishops or the
House of Deputies
acting separately, or any group of individual bishops, clergy or laity, has
authority to impose
a decision on the rest of the church."
Echoing the court's warning that "devoted members of the church have
convictions about this particular issue which lead to contradictory
practices," Chinnis cautioned
that "not even legislative resolution at some future date will automatically
result in consensus."
The church's structure "protects the fundamental unity of the church in
conflict," she added. "It has held us together for two decades despite
and conflicting practices about the ordination of women. I trust God will
continue to help us
maintain that unity now."
The crucial unity to seek now is to "be of one heart" rather than of
"one mind," argued
Bishop James Jelinek of Minnesota. "When God gives us the gift to be of one
heart, we can
agree and disagree, we can fight and argue, we can do all sorts of things
without causing even
deeper wounds in our passion for truth and justice."
--JAMES H. THRALL IS DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF NEWS AND INFORMATION FOR THE
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