Ordination of Homosexualsunder Scrutiny Episcopal Church Court Confronts Heresy Case

Article excerpt

An Episcopal church court will convene Tuesday in Wilmington,

Del., to decide whether the ordination of homosexuals is a

matter of doctrine.

The decision by the nine bishop-judges will determine whether

Walter Righter, retired bishop of Iowa, can be tried for heresy

for ordaining a non-celibate homosexual in 1990.

It would be only the second time a bishop has been tried for

heresy since the Episcopal Church was established in the United

States in 1789.

Righter, who was assisting in Newark, N.J., knew that Barry

Stopfel was living with his male lover when he ordained him as a

deacon, the step that precedes ordination to the priesthood.

Stopfel was later ordained a priest and is rector of a church in

Maplewood, N.J.

The accusations of heresy against Righter were brought by 10

bishops, including Stephen Jecko of the Jacksonville-based

Diocese of Florida. Jecko has declined to discuss the issue.

"Simply put, we are convinced that the Episcopal Church clearly

teaches that it is not lawful or appropriate to knowingly ordain

a practicing homosexual," the Rev. William C. Wantland, bishop

of the Diocese of Eau Claire, Wis., wrote in his cover letter to

Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning.

But some people think the issue will be decided before the

heresy trial, which is schedule for May.

"I think there are pretty good odds it will end with the

hearing," said the Rev. Ted Hackett, director of the Episcopal

Studies Program at Chandler School of Theology at Emory

University in Atlanta.

"One of the things about the Episcopal Church is that it is not

a doctrine-based church," Hackett said. "There's been no

explicit doctrine that's been violated because the church has

never said anything about the issue in terms of doctrine. . . .

Attempts to pin things down like this in terms of doctrine are

very much against the general tradition of the church."

Doctrine is generally understood to mean tenets of the faith

such as the divinity of Christ and his resurrection as outlined

in the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed.

Homosexuality is not mentioned in the denomination's

Constitution and Canons, the guidelines for worship and

ministry. The ordination service in The Book of Common Prayer

says a priest should be a "wholesome example."

Conservatives believe ordaining non-celibate homosexuals is

totally unacceptable because the Bible condemns homosexuality.

Others maintain that as long as a homosexual or lesbian is in a

committed, monogamous relationship and is otherwise qualified,

he or she should be eligible for ordination.

They quote a resolution passed in 1979 by the General Convention

that "reaffirmed the traditional teaching of the church on

marriage" and concluded that "it is not appropriate for this

Church to ordain a practicing homosexual, or any person who is

engaged in heterosexual relations outside of marriage."

Whether that constitutes doctrine will be up to the

bishop-judges.

"To say we have no teaching and no understanding of sexuality

would be so disheartening for so many people," said the Rev. …