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
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
"To say we have no teaching and no understanding of sexuality
would be so disheartening for so many people," said the Rev. …