Bishop Responds to Charges He Ordained Gay Man Contrary to Church Doctrine

Episcopal News Service. May 18, 1995 [95088]

(ENS) Bishop Walter Righter, the retired bishop of Iowa, has formally responded to a presentment by his colleagues, charging that he violated his ordination vows by ordaining an openly gay man to the diaconate in 1990.

The presentment was made last January by the bishops of Dallas, Florida, San Joaquin, Central Florida, Texas, Eau Claire, Fort Worth, Quincy, Rio Grande and West Tennessee. Under the church's canon law, Righter had three months to respond with an answer to the charges and a "brief in support" of his answer. That response was filed with Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning May 10 and sent to all bishops on May 15. One-fourth of the church's 297 bishops, a total of 75, must give consent by August 15 to move towards a trial.

Opinion whether a trial was likely varied widely. Several bishops said that they would be "surprised and disappointed" if their colleagues voted for a trial. Others said that the recent meeting of bishops at Kanuga had "defused" the situation and made a trial unwarranted. Others suggested that recent elections of conservative bishops, and residual anger from the inability of last summer's General Convention to resolve sexuality issues, argue in favor of a trial.

Brief argues there is no doctrine on ordination of gays

In his answer to the presentment, written by Chancellor Michael Rehill of the Diocese of Newark, Righter denied the charges that he is "holding and teaching publicly or privately, and advisedly, any doctrine contrary to that held by this church" in violation of its canon laws or that he has "violated his ordination vows."

"There is no doctrine in this church pertaining to the qualifications of ordinands to the diaconate or limitations on a bishop's right to ordain a canonically qualified candidate," the answer asserts. And it adds that "it is not contrary to the doctrine of this church to ordain to the diaconate a non-celibate homosexual man or woman" nor do the Constitution or Canons of the church prohibit such an ordination. Therefore the 1990 ordination of the Rev. Barry Stopfel when Righter was serving as an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Newark "was in accordance with the requirements of the Book of Common Prayer and the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church."

Rehill was joined in his brief by the chancellors of the dioceses of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Washington (DC) and Chicago whose bishops could also face charges for ordaining non-celibate gays.

Misunderstanding of doctrine

"The presentment is based on a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Episcopal Church and the sources of such doctrine," the brief argues. The church's doctrine is based on Holy Scripture, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and the Book of Common Prayer alone and therefore does not include resolutions and "teachings" of the House of Bishops.

"There is no doctrine of the Episcopal Church on the issue of whether it is permissible or impermissible to ordain non-celibate homosexual persons," the brief said, "no article of faith" on such ordinations "which must be accepted by all members of the church." It pointed out that the House of Bishops acknowledged in 1990 that it was "not of a single mind" on such ordinations.

"The moral and social teaching of the church, unlike its fundamental doctrine, is open to modification, development and even repudiation, in light of changing perceptions and understandings of the human condition," the brief added. "It is continuously under review and the subject of regular legislation by General Convention, but it is not the doctrine of the Episcopal Church."

The brief pointed out that the church has changed its mind on remarriage after divorce, the role of women in the church and acceptability of slavery.

"To accept the presentment would be to hold that all those bishops who signed the statement of conscience in response to the 1979 General Convention resolution [stating that it was not appropriate to ordain openly gay candidates]; all those bishops who voted against the 1990 resolution of the House of Bishops [stating that the bishops did not agree on the issue]; and all of those bishops who signed the 1994 Statement of Koinonia [stating that homosexuals who are living in relationships are not excluded from the ordination process] would be subject to presentment for violations of canon IV. 1.1(2)," the brief warned.

"This attempt to use the church's judicial process to resolve an issue on which there is no agreement must fail," the brief concluded in asking the bishops to dismiss the presentment.