Presentments Brought Against Five Bishops Who Ordained Homosexuals

Episcopal News Service. February 9, 1995 [95016]

Jerry Hames, Editor of Episcopal Life.

(ENS) Ten diocesan bishops have delivered a letter of presentment to Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning charging that a now-retired bishop violated his ordination vows by teaching erroneous doctrine when he ordained an openly gay man to the diaconate five years ago.

Bishop Walter Righter, retired bishop of Iowa, was assistant bishop in the Diocese of Newark when he ordained the Rev. Barry Stopfel in September 1990. According to the presentment, Righter knew at the time that Stopfel was in a homosexual relationship.

Righter, who faces the charge on the eve of the expiration of a fiveyear statute of limitations, claims he is just the first of five bishops who will have letters of presentment brought against them. The others, he said, are Bishop Ronald Haines (Washington), Bishop Allan Bartlett (Pennsylvania), Bishop John Spong (Newark) and Bishop Stewart Wood (Michigan).

Harassment of the church

"My initial reaction was 'This is ridiculous,"' said Righter, adding he first learned of the charge when the presiding bishop called him. "It is harassment," the 71-year-old bishop said. "Not of me, but of the church."

The House of Bishops voted once before not to censure Righter and Haines for ordaining non-celibate homosexuals. At the 1991 General Convention in Phoenix, the bishops rejected a call for censure, choosing instead to consider at a later meeting the "gap between what we profess and what we do" on the issue of ordaining homosexuals.

Righter, who now lives in Alstead, N.H., assists the bishop in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts occasionally and takes Sunday services in the Diocese of Vermont. He faces major legal expenses if he chooses to contest the charge. If found guilty, he could face admonition, suspension of episcopal or ministerial functions, or deposition.

Bishop John Howe of the Diocese of Central Florida, a spokesman for bishops making the presentment, acknowledged that Righter was chosen first because the statute of limitations was about to expire.

"Our feeling was that we needed to act with regard to Bishop Righter's culpability before the time limit ran out," said Howe.

Others who signed the presentment are Bishops William Wantland (Eau Claire), James M. Stanton (Dallas), Stephen H. Jecko (Florida), John David Schofield (San Joaquin), Terence Kelshaw (Rio Grande), James M. Coleman (West Tennessee), Jack L. Iker (Ft. Worth), Maurice M. Benitez (Texas) and Keith Ackerman (Quincy). Five are newly consecrated bishops, having taken office since the ordination of Stopfel by Righter. The principal author of the brief was Wantland, a lawyer and expert in canon law.

Long, expensive process

Although Howe admitted that an ecclesiastical trial is an expensive, long and drawn-out process that diverts attention from the church's mission, he said it was Righter's "in your face defiance" five years ago that led to the bishops' action.

Righter ordained Stopfel less than a month after the House of Bishops adopted a statement in September, 1990, disapproving of and disassociating itself from the ordination of another non-celibate gay man, Robert Williams, in the Diocese of Newark.

The presentment refers to the 1979 General Convention resolution that affirmed the ordination of "qualified persons of either heterosexual or homosexual orientation whose behavior the Church considers wholesome," but also stated "it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual."

The procedure of this presentment is different from that recently brought against Bishop Stewart Wood of Michigan by a group of clergy and lay people from his diocese. That charge was dismissed by a majority of five bishops on a panel that was appointed by the presiding bishop.

Contradiction of collegiality?

In this case, both the presentment and Righter's response will be circulated to all members of the House of Bishops. Within three months, one-quarter of all bishops must consent in writing to a trial before a court is convened by nine bishops who were elected at General Convention. If an insufficient number of bishops vote for trial, the charges will be dropped.

A bishop who is found guilty in an ecclesiastical trial has an automatic right to appeal. The final sentence, if carried out, must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the House of Bishops.

Observers said deposition would be highly unlikely given the number of bishops who believe that sexual orientation should not bar qualified candidates for ordination. Some also saw the action of the 10 bishops at odds with the new, hard-won collegiality of the House of Bishops.

Howe said the 10 bishops want to restore discipline in the church, which, he said, has been badly eroded. "We will see, one way or the other, whether this church really means what it says when it comes to issues of sexual morality," he said.