From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Episcopalians join nationwide mourning for murdered gay student
John Rollins <firstname.lastname@example.org>
26 Oct 1998 20:22:46
Episcopalians join nationwide mourning for murdered gay student in
by Kathryn McCormick
(ENS) Matthew Shepard was laid to rest October 16 in the
Episcopal church in Casper, Wyoming, where he had often served as
an acolyte, but the letters, essays, sermons, vigils and protest
marches in reaction to the 21-year-old gay college student's death
after a horrific beating have continued.
While many people mourned, others fired angry words at the
two young men and two women who have been charged in the murder.
Some urged forgiveness for whoever committed the crime, which
police said apparently began with a robbery but was also prompted
in part by Shepard's homosexuality. He died five days after he was
found lashed to a fence post in near-freezing temperatures outside
Others searched for meaning in the young man's death and
still others sought to change the laws or to change minds in the
country's ongoing debate over homosexuality.
"There is an image that comes to mind when I reflect on Matt
on the wooden cross rail fence," the Rev. Royce Brown, rector of
St. Mark's, the Casper church, said at the funeral. "I replace
that image with that of another man hung upon a cross. When I
concentrate on that man, I can release the bitterness inside."
Nearly 1,000 people crowded inside the church or stood
outside in steadily falling snow. Across the street about a dozen
anti-gay protesters shouted slogans and waved signs bearing
messages such as "God Hates Fags."
Among the earliest reactions to Matthew Shepard's death was
that of the Rev. Bill Bacon, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal
Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, near the hospital where Shepard
was taken for treatment and where he died. Bacon was called to
Shepard's bedside by the family.
Noting that Shepard had been active in the Episcopal Church
and had attended Canterbury Club while at the University of
Wyoming, Bacon recalled in an essay written for the Colorado
Episcopalian, "Gathered around his bandaged body, we began the
Litany at the Time of Death. As lights blinked and the respirator
purred, I thought of the obscenity of the Lambeth Resolution on
Sexuality" that condemned homosexual activity. "Especially," he
said, "the bit included as an afterthought, and not unanimously,
`We wish to assure them (homosexuals) that they are loved by God
and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless
of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.'
"Matthew, a child of God by Baptism, a Son of the Episcopal
Church. The obscenity of even thinking that a vote had to be taken
to ensure that he was a full member of the church," Bacon said
No license to hate
Reaction to the murder has drawn thousands to candlelight
vigils and protests across the country. In the speeches and
sermons given since the funeral, many have called for forgiveness,
but many more have called for action as a response.
"Opinions about the theological status of homosexuality are
distributed in a wide spectrum across our church," Bishop Paul V.
Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem said in a pastoral letter,
"but those who hold extreme views on either end of that spectrum
agree that no human being is to be treated with disrespect,
contempt, or violence.
"It is a basic principle of democracy that no human beings
should live in fear for their lives; we are to live under law, not
under terror. A special burden lies on the church not to let our
debates about sexuality give anyone a license to kill or to hate,"
Many expressed their dismay that literal readings of certain
biblical passages have led to a climate of rejection, and
sometimes hostility, toward gay people. Others said that the
problem was deeper.
"Silence killed Matthew Shepard," Bishop Steven Charleston,
chaplain of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, said in a
chapel sermon. "The silence of Christians who know that our
scriptures on homosexuality are few and murky in interpretation
and far outweighed by the words of a savior whose only comment on
human relationships was to call us to never judge but only to
"The silence of well-meaning, educated people who pretend to
have an enlightened view of homosexuality while quietly tolerating
the abuse of gays and lesbians in their own communities. The
silence of our elected officials who have the authority to make
changes but prefer to count votes. The silence of the majority of
`straight' Americans who shift uncomfortably when confronted by
the thought that gays and lesbians may be no different from
themselves, save for the fact that they are walking targets for
bigotry, disrespect, cheap humor, and apparently, of murder."
Shepard's murder was an example of "the irrational hatred
which can fester in the human heart, twisting logic and leading to
a cruelty which can only be described as evil," declared Bishop
Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis.
"While scholars and theologians may disagree about the
biblical texts which seem to condemn certain homosexual behaviors,
there can be no dispute that both the Law of Moses and the
teachings of Jesus demand mercy and justice for those who are
`other,' wayfarers, strangers and sojourners and even for members
of various despised races," she added.
In San Francisco, Bishop William E. Swing urged churches in
his diocese to launch a theological and biblical study aimed at
producing a paper responding to a recent Lambeth Conference
resolution that found homosexual practice "incompatible with
"I have a deep conviction that Lambeth erred in its
understanding of Holy Scripture and its understanding of
homosexual people," he told delegates to last week's diocesan
convention. "The bishop of the Diocese of California does not
believe that an appeal to a few passages of Leviticus should take
precedence over all (biblical) wisdom," he said.
Convention delegates authorized the creation of a task force
to undertake the study and report to the next diocesan convention
Calls for legislation
Rodney Page, speaking on behalf of the National Council of
Churches, called on Congress to support new legislation on "hate
crimes." President Bill Clinton earlier had urged Congress to
strengthen federal law regarding such crimes.
Meanwhile, in a separate but related action, Archbishop of
Canterbury George Carey met in London with representatives of the
Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, whose membership includes
about 1,000 Anglicans. The October 16 meeting came as the result
of a promise Carey made to the group, which had registered its
anger at the Lambeth Conference vote on sexuality last summer.
An LGCM statement said the meeting had taken place in a
"constructive and positive atmosphere" in which both sides
discussed working cooperatively while respecting the differences
remaining between them.
Pamela Chinnis, president of the Episcopal Church's House of
Deputies, pointed out in a statement that four months earlier, an
African-American man, James Byrd, Jr., was beaten and then killed
in Jasper County, Texas, a victim of racial hatred.
"These horrifying crimes, committed under cover of darkness
on lonely country roads, warn of the potential for evil that lurks
in every town and city, and in our churches, too," she said. "We
must take the message of these hate crimes seriously-our faith
requires it, and our survival as a civilization depends on it."
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, in a separate statement,
said he mourned the young man's death, adding, "The fact that
Matthew was an Episcopalian makes our grief no more sharp, but it
does give us a particular responsibility to stand with gays and
lesbians, to decry all forms of violence against them-from verbal
to physical, and to encourage the dialogue that can, with God's
help, lead to new appreciation for their presence in the life of
our church, and the broader community."
According to news reports, Shepard was born in Casper. He
attended schools in Switzerland, on the East Coast of the U.S. and
in Denver. He traveled the world with his parents, who were
employed by an oil company, before returning to Casper. He later
attended Casper Junior College before transferring this fall to
the University of Wyoming, where he studied political science.
--Kathryn McCormick is associate director of the Office of News
and Information of the Episcopal Church.
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