Magazine article The Christian Century

Questions Set in Heresy Trial

Magazine article The Christian Century

Questions Set in Heresy Trial

Article excerpt

DOES THE Episcopal Church have a binding doctrine barring gays who are not celibate from being ordained to the church's ministry? That question quickly emerged December 8 as the critical issue facing a panel of nine church judges in the first stage of an historic heresy trial of a retired Episcopal bishop. Bishop Walter Righter is charged with violating church laws, including his ordination vow, by knowingly ordaining Barry Stopfel, a gay man in a noncelibate relationship. Righter ordained Stopfel as a deacon, the step below priesthood in the Episcopal Church.

The church court, known as the Court for the Trial of a Bishop, has many similarities to a secular court, although canon--or church--law is used; the judges are Episcopal bishops; and the preliminary proceedings were held not in a courthouse but at Christ Church Cathedral in downtown Hartford.

The hearing was called to deal with a variety of pretrial motions filed by each side. Righter's formal trial is set for February 27-29 in Wilmington, Delaware. The judges unexpectedly switched the site to the Delaware city from Hartford's Christ Cathedral during the December 8 proceedings. After first concurring in an invitation to hold the trial in Hartford, the bishop of Connecticut, Clarence Coleridge, withdrew the invitation on the day of the hearing. The trial, he contended, was "drawing attention in a negative way ... away from the real issues of the church."

Richard Mansfield Jr., provost of Christ Cathedral, said he believed the trial "should not be happening" at all. In a statement made prior to the pretrial hearing Mansfield said he was "glad" to offer the cathedral for the trial as a "very important part of our ministry" of hospitality to groups within the church. But, he added, "I think it is outrageous that in this day and age the church is involved in a heresy trial on any issue, but especially this one. The millions of dollars that will be spent and the energy of the leadership of the church expended on this trial is a sinful waste and the antithesis to the proper stewardship of our resources.

Episcopal officials estimate that Righter's trial will cost the national church more than $500,000. Righter's defense team estimates his defense will run an additional $250,000. The 2.6-million-member church has been bitterly divided for more than a decade over homosexual issues, including the questions of whether noncelibate gays may be ordained and whether gay relationships can be blessed by the church. Currently the church allows the ordination of gays who promise to remain celibate.

Righter is charged with violating two provisions of church law: that in ordaining Stopfel, he was "teaching a doctrine contrary to that held by this church," and that in doing so he violated his own ordination vows to "conform to the Doctrine . . . of the Church." If found guilty, Righter would face one of three possible penalties: a formal admonition, suspension from the ministry, or removal from the ministry.

There has been no heresy trial in the Episcopal Church since 1924, when a retired Arkansas bishop wrote a book titled Communism and Christianism. In it he claimed that the God of Christianity is a superstition; he also denied Jesus' divinity. The retired bishop was found guilty of heresy.

At the pretrial hearing, held in a sparsely furnished reception room of an annex to the cathedral, the historic nature of the proceedings was almost lost in the prosaic setting. …

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