Amid Chorus of Protests Diocese of Newark Ordains Openly Gay Man

Episcopal News Service. December 19, 1989 [89260]

HOBOKEN, NJ, Dec.16 -- While picketers chanted outside All Saints Church in Hoboken and protesters spoke inside, Bishop John Spong of the Diocese of Newark ordained an openly gay man, J. Robert Williams, to the priesthood. Williams, 34, is director of the Oasis, a ministry of the diocese with gays and lesbians.

In a letter to the bishops of the Episcopal Church before the ordination, Spong said that the diocese was acting "with integrity and with competence." Although he acknowledged that the decision would "generate some debate and controversy," he said that he did not regret the action, "for I believe growth takes place in such moments." Spong said that with the ordination of Williams, "the Episcopal Church has taken a step into honesty and into integrity."

"Opening the church closet is a major part of what the ministry is about, "Williams said in an interview. "Everybody knows there are a lot of gay clergy. What's different here is telling the truth about it."

The two and one-half hour service began with a scene from the play Mass Appeal, a meditation from Kairos: Confessions of a Gay Priest, and the procession of clergy and banners from a number of parishes -- all under the glare of television cameras. The liturgy came to an abrupt halt when Bishop Spong asked the congregation of 250 if any knew "any impediment or crime because of which we should not proceed."

Elaine Sullivan, representing the Episcopal Synod of America, (ESA) came forward and said that the ordination "is contrary to the beliefs and will of the church." The ESA, formed last June in protest to women's ordination and liberal trends in the Episcopal Church, had asked Spong to "desist" from plans for the ordination and announced its intentions to protest.

A second protest, by Theodore Arnheiter, a retired Air Force colonel from Tuxedo Park, New York, argued that no homosexuals should be ordained and that the church "has been infiltrated by homosexual liberals." The Episcopal layman also suggested that any bishop who ordains a homosexual should resign.

Spong responded by saying that quoting the Bible literally on the issue of homosexuality "is to misuse that sacred book and to pander to a dying prejudice." He listed a number of positions included in Scripture that are no longer held by the church, including slavery and the ownership of women by their husbands. He said that all the objections had been considered, and announced, to loud applause, that the ordination would continue.

After a long litany, led by Williams's companion of four years, James Skelly, the service proceeded without incident until Skip Robokoff, a pastor from the Fort Lee Gospel Church, interrupted the sermon by Bishop Fred Wolf with shouts that the ordination service was "an abomination." He ignored pleas to sit down, and after being forcibly removed from the church by ushers, he continued his chants in front of the church.

Resolution of 1979 says ordination of homosexuals 'not appropriate'

A resolution of the 1979 General Convention of the Episcopal Church said that it was "not appropriate" to ordain practicing homosexual persons or those who engage in heterosexual relations outside of marriage. Spong was among 40 bishops who have signed a dissenting opinion that argued bishops should be free "to determine the fitness and calling of individual persons to Holy Orders," with each case decided on "individual merits as a whole human being."

Although there is no canon of the church that specifically forbids ordaining homosexuals, the 1979 resolution still represents the "mind of the church," according to a statement released by Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning the day before the ordination. He pointed out that the church is still studying the whole issue of human sexuality, and he expressed his hope that the ordination "will encourage positive debate, rather than polarization." Browning said that Williams was ordained "with the approval of the Commission on Ministry and the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Newark, as well as the bishop. It has been their decision that this ordination will contribute to their ministry as a diocese." The church's Commission on Human Affairs is conducting discussions on sexuality, and it "is continuing in a creative way as they listen to persons with a variety of points of view," Browning added. (Statement included in this issue of ENS.)

Browning's statement was also sent to the other primates of the Anglican Communion, asking for their prayers that the church's dialogue "will be conducted in a spirit of respect for conflicting opinions at best, and Christian charity and mutual tolerance at the very least."

Williams is a native of Abilene, Texas; a 1985 graduate of the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Newark in 1988.

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