Court Dismisses Charges Against Bishop Walter Righter Over Ordination of Homosexual

Episcopal News Service. May 23, 1996 [96-1467]

(ENS) A controversial legal process that threw an international spotlight on the Episcopal Church's struggles over the place of homosexuals in the ordained ministry came to an apparent conclusion May 15 as an ecclesiastical court ruled that retired Bishop Walter Righter violated no church law or "core doctrine" when he ordained a non-celibate homosexual man as a deacon.

Because Righter signed a statement supporting the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and ordained the Rev. Barry Stopfel, now rector of St. George's in Maplewood, New Jersey, as a deacon in 1990, 10 bishops charged him in January, 1995, with "holding and teaching. . . doctrine contrary to that held by this church" under the so-called "heresy" canon, and with violating his ordination vows.

A seven-to-one majority of the bishops sitting on the Court for the Trial of a Bishop ruled, however, that there is "no core doctrine prohibiting the ordination of a non-celibate, homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship with a person of the same sex." Likewise, the court stated that it did not find "sufficient clarity in the church's teaching at the present time concerning the morality of same sex relationships" to support the charge that Righter violated his ordination vow to uphold the discipline of the church.

At several points in the decision, read before a hushed and attentive audience of nearly 200 in the sanctuary of the Cathedral Church of St. John in Wilmington, Delaware, the bishops made it clear that they were throwing the issue back to General Convention, the Episcopal Church's chief legislative body.

And the court took pains to address what they called the pastoral concerns related to their decision, calling for "mutual respect and understanding" by those holding different opinions. It urged other Christian communions -- many of whom face the same difficult issue -- to realize that the decision was not establishing policy for the church.

What is core doctrine?

At issue in the case was exactly what church doctrine is protected by the church's canons on clergy discipline, the court stated, as the bishops in the majority took turns reading sections of a summary of their 27-page decision. The majority ruled that only "core doctrine" relating to the central salvation event of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection is automatically protected by the canon on teaching false doctrine. While other church teachings might be enforceable under the canon, that protection has to be specifically spelled out, the majority stated.

Without clear General Convention action one way or the other, the court indicated that "this issue will not be resolved and the church unified in its faith and practice by presentments and trials, nor by unilateral acts of bishops and their dioceses, or through the adoption of proclamations by groups of bishops or others expressing positions on the issues."

The court was also clear in limiting the scope of its decision. "We are not deciding whether life-long, committed, same gender sexual relationships are or are not a wholesome example with respect to ordination vows," the court stated. "We are not rendering an opinion on whether a bishop and diocese should or should not ordain persons living in same gender sexual relationships. Rather, we are deciding the narrow issue of whether or not under Title IV a bishop is restrained from ordaining persons living in committed same gender sexual relationships."

Signing the majority opinion were Bishops Edward W. Jones of Indianapolis, the court's president; Robert C. Johnson of North Carolina; Donis D. Patterson, retired bishop of Dallas; Cabell Tennis of Delaware; Douglas E. Theuner of New Hampshire; Arthur E. Walmsley, retired bishop of Connecticut; and Roger J. White of Milwaukee.

Threat to church unity?

In a dissenting opinion, Bishop Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota argued for a broader interpretation of doctrine, maintaining that a 1979 statement of the General Convention calling ordination of non-celibate homosexuals "not appropriate" embodied authoritative doctrine. The majority interpreted that resolution as only a recommendation.

"The bottom line is," Fairfield argued following a review of biblical verses with apparent references to homosexuality, "any homosexual activity of any kind is proscribed."

Two other bishops of the court -- Roger White and Donis Patterson -- concurred with the majority, but stressed in a separate opinion that ordination of non-celibate homosexuals is not therefore permissible because it is not supported by scripture, the corporate decision of the church or the Book of Common Prayer. For bishops to act without that authority is to "preempt the corporately discerned and fixed teaching of the church," and to "threaten the unity of the church," White said.

A ninth bishop, Frederick Borsch of Los Angeles, withdrew from the court after his impartiality was challenged by the presenting bishops following the ordination of a non-celibate homosexual in his diocese after the court held its first hearing.

Decision brings celebration and dismay

With obvious relief following the conclusion of the two-hour session, a jubilant Righter called the 16-month legal ordeal "invasive," saying that "it's invaded my life, my wife's life and the lives of my kids." Righter performed the ordination of Stopfel while serving as assistant bishop in Newark following his retirement as bishop of Iowa. He now lives with his wife, Nancy, in New Hampshire.

Righter said that, while the decision may encourage some bishops to ordain non-celibate homosexuals, other bishops considering such ordinations may wait for the actions of the next General Convention, meeting in Philadelphia in July, 1997.

His attorney, Michael Rehill, maintained that the decision cleared the way for other ordinations of non-celibate homosexuals without establishing it as the policy of the Episcopal Church. "What the court said today is, there is no restraint on the right and power of a bishop to ordain" non-celibate homosexuals, he said. "It's not saying it's OK; it's saying it's not illegal."

Stopfel, who attended the two-hour court session with his partner, the Rev. Will Leckie, a United Church of Christ minister, said, "I feel very proud of my church today," suggesting that the ruling will "let the people of this church continue to work on their understanding of human sexuality."

As one of the court bishops noted, Stopfel said, "We should not be taking each other to court, we should be taking each other to God in prayer. So we've closed the avenue on something adversarial and now we can spend more time developing relationships and dialogue."

Disappointed, but not surprised

The celebration of Righter and his supporters, who were gathered in first few rows of pews on the left side of cathedral as the decision was read, was matched by clear disappointment on the part of Church Advocate A. Hugo Blankingship and those who supported the presentment, seated on the right.

Only two of the bishops who brought the original charge or "presentment" -- John Howe of Central Florida and James Stanton of Dallas -- attended the session. They made little comment before leaving the cathedral immediately after the session's close, choosing not to attend a scheduled press conference. Saying they were disappointed but not surprised with the ruling, Howe said no decision had been made on whether an appeal would be filed. The presenting bishops may appeal the decision on the first count on teaching false doctrine to a second court within 30 days. Should that second court reverse the first, Righter could still face ecclesiastical punishment.

In a statement released the following day, the 10 presenting bishops called the decision "stunning" though predictable. "In a single pronouncement it has swept away two millennia of Christian teaching regarding God's purposes in creation, the nature and meaning of marriage and the family," the statement claimed. The decision also jeopardizes efforts to strengthen ecumenical relations with other communions, such as the Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Lutherans, it said.

Raising what they called the "hard and inescapable question" of "where do we go from here?" the presenting bishops announced that they would hold a press conference in Dallas, May 28, to give their answer.

Early reaction is mixed

Organizations and individuals throughout the church were quick to either hail or condemn the announcement.

"By disregarding the church's doctrine of marriage, this court has condemned the Episcopal Church to still more anarchy and conflict," warned the Rev. Todd H. Wetzel, executive director of Episcopalians United, a conservative organization opposed to what it perceives as the liberal trends of the church. "This ruling is a tacit validation of homosexuality," he said. "Both Holy Scripture and The Book of Common Prayer clearly teach the doctrine that Christians are to reserve sexual intimacy for the sacrament of marriage. The practice of homosexuality is a flagrant violation of long-held Christian belief."

He cautioned that "Episcopalians will remember this ruling when they choose where to devote their energies and their finances. With this ruling the Episcopal Church as a national entity will continue to fragment and devolve."

A spokesman for the Episcopal Synod of America, an organization of traditionalist Episcopalians, stated that it would not recognize the court's decision and warned of schism. The synod, said the Rev. Samuel Edwards, executive director, "takes seriously the Bible's requirement that we separate ourselves from those who deny the Gospel."

On the other hand, the national board of Integrity, an organization which supports gay and lesbian Episcopalians, called for "mutual reconciliation and healing," and said that "the church is now in a position to fully embrace the ministry of its lesbian and gay clergy." Integrity hopes that "the decision will aid in evangelism by our church, not only in the lesbian and gay community, but in the broader community as well, especially among the young, who long to see a loving church reaching out to their complex world."

Decision seen to underscore inclusiveness

Bishop Otis Charles, the only openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and former dean of Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, praised the court's action, saying, "The dismissal of heresy charges against Bishop Walter Righter lifts the spirits of thousands of gay and lesbian Episcopalians." He contended that the decision "unequivocally upholds a growing awareness that a 'don't ask, don't tell' approach has no more place in the church than in the military."

Drawing a parallel between the struggles over homosexual ordination and ordination of women, a statement from the Episcopal Women's Caucus said, "We especially rejoice with our lesbian sisters and gay brothers in this affirmation of the gift of their ministries in our church." The caucus "gives thanks that the church is not now compelled to drive out large numbers of faithful and effective clergy who are lesbian and gay along with the bishops who ordained them," the statement noted, adding that "God calls human beings to God's service, and the church ordains human beings, not categories."

Browning and Chinnis respond

Bishop Frank Griswold of Chicago cautioned against interpreting the court's actions as "a victory in as much as the question of homosexuality in the life of the church is a question that is far from being resolved." It continues to be "extremely important... to listen with care and respect to the various voices which continue to be a part of the process of debate and discernment."

Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning praised the court for its "thoughtful and thorough" work, and, like Griswold, stressed that "we will all be diminished if this action is thought of in terms of winners and losers." The whole church will be blessed, he said, "if we see this as another significant step on a difficult path of discernment. The court has shown the world an Anglican way of seeking a common mind."

He also noted that "to our great credit, our church does not hesitate to deal openly and responsibly together on the difficult issues of our common life, of which sexuality is one."

Pamela P. Chinnis, president of the General Convention's House of Deputies, underscored the court's message that "our General Convention is responsible for resolving issues of this sort." No other group, "not a court, or the House of Bishops or the House of Deputies acting separately, or any group of individual bishops, clergy or laity, has authority to impose a decision on the rest of the church."

Echoing the court's warning that "devoted members of the church have deeply held convictions about this particular issue which lead to contradictory practices," Chinnis cautioned that "not even legislative resolution at some future date will automatically result in consensus."

The church's structure "protects the fundamental unity of the church in periods of conflict," she added. "It has held us together for two decades despite profound disagreements and conflicting practices about the ordination of women. I trust God will continue to help us maintain that unity now."

The crucial unity to seek now is to "be of one heart" rather than of "one mind," argued Bishop James Jelinek of Minnesota. "When God gives us the gift to be of one heart, we can agree and disagree, we can fight and argue, we can do all sorts of things without causing even deeper wounds in our passion for truth and justice."

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