Episcopal Bishop Going on Trial on Heresy Charge: His Ordination of Gay at Issue

Article excerpt

WILMINGTON, Del. - The Cathedral Church of Saint John changes from an urban sanctuary to a court of heresy here Tuesday as a bishop is tried by his peers for only the second time in Episcopal Church history.

In the case of retired Bishop Walter Righter, who is in the dock for ordaining a noncelibate homosexual, the panel of nine bishops must first decide if the church has a doctrine on sexual morality to be heretical about.

"The question in Wilmington is whether this trial is about doctrine," said Bishop Righter, who has been charged with violating his vows and church doctrines by his action. "They say it is; we say it isn't."

If the court finds after a one-day hearing that his 1990 action did not defy any Episcopal doctrine, "the case will end," he said in a telephone interview.

Last year, 10 bishops issued a "presentment," or charge, against Bishop Righter, who lives in New Hampshire and is retired from the Diocese of Iowa. A quarter of the church's 302 bishops endorsed the charges, allowing it to go to trial - after three changes of venue.

Delaware's Bishop Cabell Tennis "invited the trial here because we thought that Wilmington was a mature community," said the Rev. Peggy Patterson, dean of the cathedral.

"I, too, am one of the people who wishes the trial was not taking place," she said in her office. "But it is going to move us to a new and more inclusive church."

In the 1920s, the Rev. William Montgomery Brown was defrocked for the heresy of favoring communism over Christianity.

Bishop Righter has been charged with violating a 1979 General Convention resolution that "it is not appropriate for the church to ordain a practising homosexual, or any person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside of marriage."

"My attorney would argue that doctrines are in the creeds, but not in General Convention resolutions," said Bishop Righter, 72.

One of the 10 bishops who made the charge, Bishop James M. Stanton of the Diocese of Dallas, said the resolution has the weight of doctrine by tradition and the word of Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning.

"The presiding bishop said in 1990 that the resolution was `the stated authoritative position of the church at this time,' " Bishop Stanton said in a telephone interview. "The resolution affirms the traditional Christian sexual ethic, which is found in the Scriptures and our prayer book."

He said Bishop Righter is not on trial for his opinions.

"He can hold any opinion he wants, but in his public actions he must conform," Bishop Stanton said. "Acting alone, he has tried to change the teaching of the church by his action."

The trial will look much as a civil court, with a panel of bishops in bright shirts and white collars at the head of a cathedral hall with two legal advisors sitting by.

A church attorney will represent each party at tables facing the bench. Ticketed seating is available for 150 guests, including 40 reporters. The cathedral nursery will become a press room.

"I believe that when the proceedings are over, the case will be dismissed," said Michael F. Rehill, the defense lawyer who also is chancellor for the Episcopal Diocese of Newark. "Much of this is done to generate publicity."

Bishop Righter also impugns his accusers' motives, saying they targeted him because he is retired and because he ordained the Rev. …