Spong Ordains Homosexual Priest in Suburban New Jersey Parish

Episcopal News Service. September 17, 1991 [91171]

Just as he had announced during the heated debate on sexuality at the recent House of Bishops in Phoenix, Bishop John Spong of Newark ordained a noncelibate priest in Tenafly, New Jersey, September 14.

Unlike the glare of publicity and controversy that surrounded the ordination of another openly gay priest in December of 1989, the ordination of the Rev. Barry Stopfel was a low-key family affair. Members of the upper-middle-class suburban Church of the Atonement, where Stopfel has served several years as an assistant, clearly saw the occasion as a celebrative affirmation of "one of our own," as one person said at the reception after the service.

"This congregation was ready to accept his sexuality because it has already accepted Barry," the Rev. Jack Croneberger, rector of the parish, said in an interview after the two-hour service. While he admitted that some members of the parish are "disappointed and unhappy" with the ordination, Croneberger said most members had accepted the "slowly developing relationship" and showed up on the sultry Saturday to give Barry and his companion, the Rev. Will Leckie, a boisterous welcome.

A disgruntled former member of the parish, Austin Menzies, stepped forward to protest the ordination, calling attention to the biblical condemnation of homosexuality. Since priests are "role models for all Christians," Menzies said, Stopfel's ordination "will encourage children to believe that there is nothing perverse or immoral about homosexuality." Some members of the congregation quietly began to sing a hymn until Menzies finished his statement and left the church.

Looking for the sacred voice

The Rev. Carter Heyward, professor of theology at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began her sermon with a tribute to Bishop Robert DeWitt, a "lovely, justice-seeking, good-humored man" who courageously ordained 11 women 17 years ago in an illegal service in Philadelphia -- including Heyward.

Heyward called on Stopfel to use his priesthood to "call forth that special power we were born to share, celebrate, and pass on." She warned Stopfel that being gay "in no way removes us from the cluttered priesthood and its hierarchical process," but added that openly gay priests and their witness "could transform the church at its roots" by challenging the power structures of patriarchal religion.

"How do we find our sacred voice, how do we know that God is speaking through us?" Heyward asked. "The voice of God calls us into mutually empowering relationships," she told the congregation of 400. That voice is distorted when it is spoken at us from above -- and that makes priesthood a "spiritually precarious profession," she asserted.

God also speaks an embodied sensual word, one of honesty and passion as we seek relationships with each other, Heyward continued. And that voice is often distorted by the anti-sexual voice of the church. "Sexuality has more to do with where we put our lives than where we put our genitals," she said. For gays and lesbians the issue is not whether they act out their sexuality but "whether we will continue to be silenced by the church's duplicity."

'Unique symbol of the church's struggle'

After the ordination, Spong presented "the newest priest in the church" and his life partner to the congregation and then spoke about what the ordination means in the life of the church.

Spong emphasized the extensive three-year screening process (including "no less than 12 separate votes" by various bodies of the church) and the long spiritual pilgrimage of Stopfel. "Because of the debate that has raged in our church over the issue of homosexuality, Barry Stopfel has become a unique symbol of the church's struggle," Spong stated.

Spong said, he postponed Stopfel's ordination to the diaconate last June "in response to the personal request of the presiding bishop," and then "watched in amazement as four other gay or lesbian people were ordained deacon or priest" by other bishops "with full knowledge of what they were doing and with no media attention at all."

Bishop Walter Righter ordained Stopfel to the diaconate after last year's House of Bishops "disassociated" itself from Spong's ordination of Robert Williams in 1989. Spong said that he delayed Stopfel's ordination to the priesthood until after General Convention, at the request of the presiding bishop.

Spong said the General Convention in Phoenix "refused to amend the canons to prohibit the ordination of qualified gay and lesbian people," nor did it pass any resolutions that would place hurdles in their path. The convention also failed to censure bishops who have ordained homosexuals or place a moratorium on such ordinations in the next triennium.

Spong called the resolution that admitted there was "discontinuity" between the church's traditional teaching and the experience of many of its members "the most honest statement our church has ever made on this issue."

The Diocese of Newark was therefore acting "with the authority of our church...an authority that the church nationally has now publicly acknowledged to have been valid," Spong said. He then saluted Stopfel for his "courage and your patience."

Long process of spiritual formation

In a conversation with the press after the service, Stopfel said his ordination was a celebration for all gays and lesbians in the church. "For a long time we have been silent," he said in expressing his own hopes that it would be more possible in the future for the church's gays and lesbians to be more "honest and open."

In describing his "long process of spiritual formation," Stopfel, 43, said that he spent 12 years in the business world before responding to a call to ministry that he first felt when he was 15 years old. A former member of the Evangelical United Brethren, he said that he felt drawn to the Episcopal Church by the courageous position of bishops like Paul Moore of New York.

Both Stopfel and Croneberger described the involvement with Church of the Atonement as positive and affirming -- and Stopfel seemed particularly pleased that the entire diocesan Standing Committee asked to participate in his ordination.

Croneberger said that the ordination "finally began to sink in" when Stopfel celebrated his first Eucharist as a priest the day after he was ordained. In his sermon Croneberger was able to preach about suffering "because we as a parish have held up a piece of suffering" and were able to say to gays and lesbians that "we see you as whole and well -- and we welcome you to this place."

Although Stopfel and the parish will continue their commitment to the Oasis, a special diocesan ministry with gays and lesbians, Croneberger said that he resists any attempt to categorize Stopfel as a gay priest. "It's clear to me that Barry's sexuality should not limit what kind of priest he will be," he stated.

Croneberger paid special tribute to the members of his parish, "not exactly on the cutting edge of the church," for their willingness to struggle with the issue of calling a gay priest. He said that he finds hope for other parishes who face a similar situation. "Our people were willing to be stretched," he said -- and that is what finally made the difference.

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