Gay Priest in Newark Resigns Ministry Amid Charges that He Misrepresented His Views on Celibacy and Monogamy

Episcopal News Service. February 8, 1990 [90026]

Five weeks after he was ordained in a highly publicized and controversial service as an openly gay priest, the Rev. J. Robert Williams has resigned his ministry in the Diocese of Newark because of a furor touched off by views on celibacy and monogamy he expressed at a recent symposium in Michigan.

On January 29, Bishop John Spong wrote in a letter to the Presiding Bishop and his colleagues in the House of Bishops that, in concert with The Oasis board, he "has asked for and received the resignation" of Williams from The Oasis, a special ministry with the gay and lesbian community in Hoboken, and he has asked the diocese's Commission on Ministry and Standing Committee "to determine whether or not misrepresentation occurred during the screening process." He has asked Williams "not to function as a priest nor to speak publicly" during the investigation. "If that investigation reveals that Robert cannot abide by the standards to which this diocese has arrived after much study and prayer, and on the basis of which he was ordained, then I will invite him to resign from the priesthood of this church."

The decision came after Williams made remarks at a January 13 Detroit symposium on blessing same-sex unions that Spong said "do not represent either my thinking or the thinking of the diocese that ordained him." According to news reports of the meeting, Williams said "monogamy is as unnatural as celibacy" and that even people like Mother Teresa "would be a better person if she were sexually active." He is also quoted as saying that most members of religious orders are active homosexuals and that homosexual couples can be faithful without being monogamous.

Oasis board member Kathie Ragsdale said the board asked for Williams's resignation because he was articulating positions that "did not reflect the position of the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Newark, or the bishop of Newark." She noted that Williams had the right to his own personal opinions, but "we have to expect that his public statements will reflect the position of the diocese." She added that Bishop Spong "has reaffirmed his strong support of The Oasis and its mission" and that a search committee has been appointed to find a new director.

Spong issued a statement on January 26 calling the remarks by Williams "insensitive, immature, and totally destructive of what this diocese has tried to do in supporting responsible gay and lesbian relationships." He said that "at no point in the screening process were these recent positions and attitudes noted" and that he doubted Williams would have received approval from the diocesan Commission on Ministry or Standing Committee for his ordination if they had been known.

Williams said he felt "disappointed and betrayed" and charged that Spong was "looking for someone to offer as a sacrifice to take some of the heat off him." Spong has been under heavy attack from those who contend that his ordination of Williams flaunts a 1979 resolution of the church's General Convention saying it is "not appropriate" to ordain practicing homosexuals and breaks collegiality of the House of Bishops.

Williams wrote in an explanation for his resignation that Spong "began to distance himself from the more prophetic and radical aspects of my ministry" even before he was ordained. He also charged that Spong backed away from support of blessing same-sex couples, which Williams had always understood as a "major part of my ministry at The Oasis."

Williams called his remarks about Mother Teresa "a dumb mistake," but added that he did not regret his other controversial statements since he believed they were "consistent with the task I was hired to do by the diocese and with the ministry to which I believe I have been called by the Holy Spirit." While he was "intrigued by the concept of a ministry among the lesbian and gay community that was based in the mainstream of the Episcopal Church," he concluded that "the price of being in such a mainstream position is a severe loss of integrity and the ability to be truly prophetic."

Williams announced his intentions to remain a priest and that his ministry to the gay and lesbian community "will continue whether or not it's in the Episcopal Church." He told the Associated Press, "I'm not making a decision to leave the church unless they force me to leave" and added that he would continue to speak out publicly, despite Spong's admonition. "Before I got ordained, I was thinking of starting my own church, and that may be something that I'll have to do after all, in order to tell the truth," he said.

Integrity, the church's ministry with gays and lesbians, issued a statement on January 29 expressing its agony over the situation and a hope that the incident would not damage the dialogue in the church on issues of human sexuality or equal access by gays and lesbians to the church's ministry. The Integrity board also affirmed its policy that the church "should uphold committed relationships" whether they are homosexual or heterosexual.

Presiding Bishop expresses 'deep regret and sorrow'

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning of the Episcopal Church expressed his "deep regret and sorrow" over what he called "the intemperate and tasteless comments of Robert Williams in recent days." Yet he argued that "the issues for us as a church are deeper" than the ordination of Robert Williams or "his demeanor, regardless of how very sad that has been."

Among the deeper issues Browning cited are collegiality of the House of Bishops, the boundaries of authority, the implications of General Convention resolutions for individual Episcopalians, and the church's pastoral response to homosexuals and the "appropriateness" of ordaining them.

In his attempt to "encourage exploration of the larger issues for us as a House of Bishops and as a church, and to keep the church informed on our thinking," Browning met with a group of bishops that "represented the broad spectrum of opinion" on the ordination of Williams. After a full day of discussion on January 29, the group appointed a committee to draft a statement that could be released to the church by mid-February.

Church observers saw the meeting as part of a wider effort to avoid a long, complicated legal maneuver against Spong, involving a "presentment" of charges, a committee of inquiry, and possibly a trial in the House of Bishops. Several bishops who initially indicated they would join in efforts for a presentment now seem to be moving toward some kind of censure in the House of Bishops at its September meeting in Washington, D.C.