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THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH AND HOMOSEXUALITY

ACTIVITIES DURING 1996

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Topics covered in this essay:

bulletStatement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
bulletBishop Righter's Heresy Hearing and Trial
bulletEpiscopal Anti-Gay Movement
bulletStatement by Archbishop Robert Runcie
bulletStatement by Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning
bulletEndorsement of Same-Sex Relationships by Pennsylvania Diocese
bulletSecond National Consultation of Episcopalians on Same-Sex Unions

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Statement by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: 1996

Desmond Tutu is the Anglican Archbishop of South Africa. On the topic of homophobia, he wrote a foreword to a book of homosexual church liturgies which was published in 1996-JAN. He writes that "We reject them [homosexuals], treat them as pariahs, and push them outside our church communities, and thereby we negate the consequences of their baptism and ours. We make them doubt that they are the children of God, and this must be nearly the ultimate blasphemy. We blame them for something that is becoming increasingly clear they can do little about." 1

In 1996-FEB, he became the highest-ranking priest in the Anglican communion to suggest that non-celibate homosexuals be allowed to become priests.

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Bishop Righter's heresy hearing and trial: 1996

Bishop Walter Righter is currently the retired bishop of Iowa. In 1990-SEP, (some sources incorrectly say 1989), while he was an assistant bishop in Newark NJ, he allegedly violated his ordination vows by ordaining an openly gay man, Rev. Barry Stopfel, who was known to be involved in a committed homosexual relationship. Bishop Righter has denied that he is "holding and teaching, publicly or privately, and advisedly, any doctrine contrary to that held by this church" in violation of its canon laws--or that he had "violated his ordination vows." Ten Bishops asked that he be tried for teaching false doctrine; i.e. heresy.

36 bishops have issued a simple but most eloquent statement:

"We the undersigned recognize the witness of the Rt. Rev. Walter C. Righter to the Christ who lived, died and rose for the salvation of all. Walter Righter's trial is a trial of the Gospel, a trial of justice, a trial of fairness, and a trial of the church. We stand with Bishop Righter. We feel charged as Bishop Righter is charged. We feel on trial as Bishop Righter is on trial. Should he be found guilty, we are guilty. Should Bishop Righter be sentenced, we will accept his sentence as our own."

In an article written by Ed Stannard for Episcopal Life, he quotes Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod (Vermont) as stating, "I do not think heresy is the issue. I think that a group of bishops are trying to hold the church hostage, keeping us from being about the really serious issues that the church is called to address and holding us hostage until the church agrees with their particular theological viewpoint." He also quotes Academic Dean Fredrica Harris Thompsett (Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA) who said: "Sexuality and morality, particularly lesbian and gay sexuality, has become the scapegoat...as a sign that changing traditions have gone too far. It's really about, 'Are the old guys still in control?' "

An ecclesiastical hearing was convened on 1996-FEB-27 as the initial step in a heresy proceeding. Bishop Edward Jones (Indianapolis) was elected president of the nine-member Court for the Trial of a Bishop. The hearing was conducted at the Cathedral Church of St. John in Wilmington DE. The key debate was over the 1979 resolution (see above) which described the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals as "not appropriate." Some feel that this resolution is absolutely binding on the bishops; others feel that is only an advisory statement.

The Right Reverend John S. Spong, Bishop of Newark issued a statement in early May in which he supported Bishop Righter. He is the author of a number of popular books on religion (including Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, Born of a Woman, and Resurrection: Myth or Reality . He revealed that Rev. Stopfel "had the support of the vestry of the Church of the Atonement [in] Tenafly, New Jersey. He had the full endorsement of the Commission on Ministry. He was approved unanimously by the Standing Committee of the diocese. His ordination to the diaconate by Bishop Righter and his ordination to the priesthood by me were both carried out in consultation with the highest authorities in our national church structure." He refers to the heresy trial as an "ecclesiastical version of 'ethnic cleansing' that has now been undertaken by the religious right wing of the Episcopal Church." Bishop Spong stated that 25% of the total bishops of the church had to agree with the heresy trial; this totals 75 bishops. The "right wing" were able to gather 76 signatures, but had to obtain the votes of 44 retired bishops (some of whom had not attended meetings of the House of Bishops in over two decades), and one bishop who was unable to sign for himself because of Alzheimer's disease. He noted that "four of the ten bishops who filed the original presentment have themselves refused to implement the canons which opened the ordination process of our Church to women." Those four could be charged with violating the canons which is a more serious charge than has been laid against Rev. Righter.

On 1996-MAY-15, the Court for the Trial of a Bishop dismissed the counts against Bishop Righter, saying there was "no clear doctrine" involved when he ordained a non-celibate gay man to the diaconate in 1990-SEP.

The court stated: "We are not deciding whether life-long, committed, same gender sexual relationships are or are not a wholesome example with respect to ordination vows...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."

David Virtue, a spokesperson for HOPE (a Episcopalian group opposed to homosexual ordination) is quoted as saying: "The church has said that it has no doctrine on human sexuality ... and that it no longer recognizes Holy Scripture"

The decision of the Court could have been appealed to a second, similar court. However the 10 bishops who brought the charges noted on 1996-JUN-11 that such an appeal would not be rendered until after the next General Convention. Instead, they have stated that the court decision is "flawed and erroneous." They "have proposed to give the 1997 General Convention the opportunity to affirm its acceptance of the authority of Holy Scripture that this court has refused to accept.". They will propose a change to the church's canon law which would require all ordained clergy to abstain from all sexual relations outside of marriage. They will also create a "fellowship of Episcopal parishes and dioceses which uphold scriptural authority". The fellowship will support individual congregations whose "bishop has departed from the standards and norms set forth by the Church's teaching."

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Episcopal anti-gay movement: 1996

In 1996-MAR, the "Episcopal Laity Group ran a series of full page ads in Delaware, Tennessee, Oregon and Washington state newspapers. They called for the church to reassess its views on homosexuality. They feel that the church "is becoming a denomination recognized for blessing same-sex unions, ordaining actively gay and lesbian persons and attempting to rewrite the Book of Common Prayer...to replace biblical truth and godly morality with secular humanism and moral relativism." Spokesperson William Cheney of Atlanta, said their goal is to "take back the church and create a true confessing church which restores Christ's Gospel."

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Statement by Archbishop Robert Runcie: 1996

On 1996-MAY-16, Reuters news agency quoted Robert Runcie who was the Archbishop of Canterbury of the Church of England during the 1980's. He said that he had ignored church rules by ordaining practicing homosexuals while in office. He had not actually confirmed that they were homosexual and living in a committed relationship; he simply did not inquire and assumed that they were. He said that the Church of England's stand on homosexual priests is "ludicrous" and an "unsatisfactory compromise."

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Statement by Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning: 1996

In 1994, it is alleged that Bishop Allen Bartlett, Jr., of the Diocese of Pennsylvania ordained Rev. David Morris, a non-celibate homosexual, as a deacon. In 1995-JUN, two priests and over 100 lay persons initiated a complaint against Bishop Bartlett related to this action. Bishop Browning decided to not proceed with the complaint until the trial of Bishop Righter was concluded. In 1996-SEP, Bishop Browning announced that he will not convene a panel of bishops to review the allegations. He said: "I conclude that the paper submitted to me by the complainants regarding the ordination by Bishop Bartlett does not on its face charge any 'offense,' [under the canons of the Church]....These rulings have...definitively established for the church at this time that the ordination by a bishop of a non-celibate homosexual person is not a disciplinary 'offense' for which a charge may be brought."

In a letter to the clergy in his diocese Bartlett wrote that this decision "means that those of us in this diocese and the wider church as well can devote all our time and energies to ministering in the name of Christ to a confused and hurting world, without the distractions of a lengthy investigation and possible trial."

Referring to the denomination's General Convention, at Philadelphia PA in 1997-JUL. Bishop Bartlett noted "I have faith that the church gathered in legislative session can discern the voice of the Spirit, through faithful listening to one another, honest sharing, and prayer."

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Endorsement of same-sex relationships by Pennsylvania diocese: 1996

At a convention, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania recommended that the church create "a rite or rites for the blessing of committed relationships between persons of the same sex."

Response from "both sides" was predictable:
bulletRev. David Moyer, rector of Good Shepherd parish in Rosemont PA who also objects to female ordination, said that the vote is "...just one more step in the erosion of Christian morality in the Episcopal Church...Church doctrine says either engage in married heterosexuality or lead a chaste life, but the diocese seems to think the established, biblical historical doctrines of the church are no longer applicable...We seem to have two different religions under one roof...How can I now lecture young people and tell them my diocese says fornication and sodomy are not to be avoided?'"
bulletRev. Ruth L. Kirk, one of the resolution's submitters, said "If I quote the Old Testament in terms of condemnation of same-gender sexual expression, I can also say slavery is OK, masturbation is sinful, multiple wives is OK. So we can't develop Christian moral codes purely on the moral codes of the first century and before...As I said at the convention: can God do a new thing? And can God use the Church to do a new thing? For centuries we have condemned gays and lesbians. It is time to support committed, loving relationships."

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National Consultation of Episcopalians on Same-Sex Unions

During 1996-JUL, the Second National Consultation of Episcopalians on Same-Sex Unions was held at the College of Preachers, in Washington, D.C. While there was not complete agreement on some issues, the delegates reached a consensus that:
bullet"...the desire to celebrate the commitment to a life together arises from within the baptismal community as it seeks to support all its members, including those who are lesbian women and gay men, as they endeavor to form and deepen their Christian identity by making mature commitments, sharing their gifts with the community, and receiving the support of the community."
bullet"...there is no justification for the exclusion of gay/lesbian people from full participation in the liturgical and sacramental life of the community." 2

Their report includes a "A Rite for the Celebration of Commitment to a Life Together" 3

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References:

  1. Marilyn B. Alexander, James Preston, "We Were Baptized Too: Claiming God's Grace for Lesbians and Gays", Westminster John Knox Press, (1996) ISBN 0664256287
  2. "Report of the Second Consultation of Episcopalians on Same-Sex Unions," July 1996; available online at: http://www.diocal.org/oasis/intro.html
  3. "A Rite for the Celebration of Commitment to a Life Together" at: http://www.diocal.org/oasis/sect2.html

Copyright 1997 to 2001 incl. by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2000-DEC-2
Author: B.A. Robinson

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