Who’s on Trial – The Heretic or the Church?
On the morning of February 27, I take my seat in the packed great hall of the Cathedral Church of Saint John in Wilmington, Del. Everyone’s eyes are on a row of nine men at the front of the room. Ranging in age from 52 to 67, they wear dark suits, purple shirts, and clerical collars. The names printed on cards in front of them read like a New England prep school’s roster: Fairfield, Johnson, Theuner, Tennis, Jones, Walmsley, White, Patterson, Borsch. This is the Episcopal Church’s ecclesiastical court, gathered to hear the second heresy trial in the church’s 206-year history. Facing them is the defendant, a retired bishop named Walter Righter, 72. His offense: ordaining a sexually active homosexual.
In 1996, a heresy trial may sound like a joke – especially in the nondoctrinaire Episcopal Church. Yet the trial may have far-reaching consequences. Though Episcopalians make up a small percentage of American Christians – about 2.5 million – their influence far exceeds their numbers. Like its parent institution, the Church of England, the Episcopal Church has always retained something of the character of a national church. At time when mainline Protestant churches are struggling with homosexuality, and when the religious right depicts gay people as godless, the Righter trial brings to the forefront many homosexuals’ yearning for a full spiritual life and full membership in traditional faith communities. Like the Scopes trial, it represents a historic collision between two radically opposed world views.
Opposing views are nothing new in the Episcopal Church, which has become a magnet for people of varied backgrounds who prize the church’s longstanding emphasis on freedom of conscience. By some estimates, half of current Episcopalians were raised in other Protestant churches or as Roman Catholics, and most joined the Episcopal Church because they recognized it as an institution that encouraged them to think for themselves. In theology and liturgical practice, Episcopalians cover a broad range from “low church” evangelical Protestants to “high church” Anglo-Catholics who see the church as a branch of Catholicism. Since Elizabethan times, when it held together a country populated by both Puritans and Papists, Anglicanism has prided itself on its ability to negotiate a “via media,” or middle way, between extremes.
Yet even the Episcopal Church, apparently, has its limits. Or so argues a group of bishops led by William Wantland of the Diocese of Eau Claire, Wis. In late January 1995, Wantland sent a “presentment,” or list of charges, to Presiding Bishop Edmond Lee Browning. The presentment accused Righter of violating the church’s teachings by ordaining a homosexual in a committed relationship (which, in the presenters’ eyes, is as morally objectionable as being promiscuous). The ordination had taken place in 1990, when Righter had been an assistant to Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark.
“We are convinced,” Wantland wrote, “that the Episcopal Church clearly teaches that it is not lawful or appropriate to knowingly ordain a practicing homosexual.” The bishops charged Righter with two violations of canon law. The first was heresy – “holding and teaching doctrine contrary to that held by this church.” Righter had committed this offense, the presentment charged, by voting against a 1990 House of Bishops resolution to chastise Spong for ordaining a gay man, and by signing a 1994 statement drafted by Spong supporting such ordinations.
The second charge was a violation of ordination vows. By ordaining Barry Stopfel to the diaconate – a ministerial role that often marks a transitional stage on the way to priesthood – Righter had transgressed his vow to “uphold the doctrine and discipline” of the church.
Explaining the presentment months later, Wantland emphasizes that the presenters, frustrated by the church’s failure to agree upon an official position on homosexuality, followed this course as a last resort. “There were two questions that needed to be resolved,” he says. “One: Does the Episcopal Church have a teaching in regard to the impropriety of sexual relations outside of marriage? Two: If so, is the Episcopal Church willing to live and direct its people to live by that teaching?
“Certainly the church claims to follow what Holy Scripture says. The House of Bishops has repeatedly made statements saying that this church follows the traditional teaching of the Christian faith, that sexual relations are permitted only within the context of monogamous heterosexual marriage.” How, then, could bishops ordain practicing homosexuals?
For me, these issues are deeply personal. I grew up a religious mongrel: raised in Queens by a Roman Catholic father and a Baptist-Methodist hybrid mother, I attended a Lutheran Sunday school and then rejected organized religion when I realized I was gay. I knew there were gay Christians, but the term seemed oxymoronic. Traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality was unambiguous – and was directly at odds with the truth I now felt at the depths of my heart. To be a Christian, I thought, meant giving assent to that teaching – and such assent, I knew, would violate my conscience and integrity.
Then I found love, and followed my new companion, at first unwillingly, into the Episcopal Church. I soon realized, with astonishment, that I was in a denomination that respected my conscience and integrity. The Episcopal Church, I saw, recognized the individual mind as a gift of God, not a threat to institutional authority. It didn’t offer a confining straitjacket – or a protective cocoon – of dogma; what it offered was a distinctive way of thinking about God and a setting in which different people, coming together in worship, could travel their own roads to God. It did make demands, and hard ones: that I think independently, that I be true to my conscience and that I struggle sincerely to discern the will of the Holy Spirit in y life. As I came to understand all this, I fell in love again – this time with a church.
Alas, many people whose families had been Episcopalians for centuries looked at people like me and saw changes they didn’t like in a church they had loved far longer than I. Those changes, which they saw as rooted in transitory values and not in eternal truths, seemed to them to arise from a callous disregard for a beloved institution that had sustained them and their forefathers over many generations. Why didn’t people like me, they wondered, just go to the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Church?
After receiving the presentment from Wantland, the Presiding Bishop called Righter, who lives with his wife, Nancy, in Alstead, N.H. “The phone rang,” recalls the laconic, plain-spoken Righter, “and it was the Presiding Bishop. He said, ‘Walter, I’m here reading these papers, and Bill Wantland and these other guys are going to present you for violating the teaching of the church.’”
Righter was astonished by this development. But he wasn’t surprised to learn the names of the presenters. Of the Episcopal Church’s 300-odd bishops, they were among the most conservative. They include, for example, all four of the Bishops (Wantland included) who refuse to ordain women.
To Righter, this connection is telling – prejudice is prejudice. “Homophobia and misogyny are intimately related,” he insists. Wantland, however, denies a connection. “The two issues are totally different,” he says. “The ordination of women is not addressed in Holy Scripture. But there’s not a single support in Scripture for adultery, fornication or incest.” Homosexuality, in Wantland’s view, apparently falls under one of those categories. “Every time those subjects are mentioned, they are condemned.”
Browning read Righter the charges, and explained that similar charges were threatened against four other Bishops. The presenters, Browning said, claimed they had begun with Righter because the church’s statute of limitations would run out on him first.
This proved untrue. Before Stopfel’s ordination, other such ordinations had taken place on which the statute had not yet run out. Had the presenters not known about them? Or, as some Righter partisans believed, had the presenters deliberately singled him out? Since he had ordained Stopfel under Spong’s jurisdiction, they suggested, attacking Righter was a way of getting at Spong without taking on Spong himself.
Spong, the author of “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” and other books, had long been a thorn in the side of the church’s traditionalist wing. Easily the most famous and controversial of Episcopal bishops, he heads what is arguably the church’s most actively liberal diocese and has played a leading role as a champion of gay rights. But his renown extends far beyond this issue. To many, he is a hero who has freed from dogmatic trappings Jesus’ Gospel message of unbounded love; to others, he is an apostate who has sold out God’s faith for a worldly agenda. When I mention his name, Wantland calls Spong “anti-Christian.” Asked whether I misheard him, Wantland repeats the charge. “I’m sure you’re aware of his presentation at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington a few months ago,” he says. I’m not. “He said the Ten Commandments are immoral, he said that Joseph, the foster father of Our Lord, and Judas Iscariot weren’t real people, he’s denied incarnation, virgin birth, resurrection.”
Listening to Wantland, I’m struck by what a broad church it really is. A distinguished priest whom I count as a friend, and whose ecclesiastical judgment I respect, would agree with Wantland about the Bishop of Newark: “Bishop Spong,” my friend once thundered in a sermon, “has got it wrong!” Yet I also know Episcopalians whose Christianity has been confirmed and strengthened by Spong’s books.
I feel a certain sympathy for Wantland, who has faced so many changes over the years. When he was ordained, did he expect that he would ever be discussing such issues as open homosexuality? Perhaps, I muse, God has his reasons for calling all of us to play our various roles in this unfolding drama.
Apologizing that his secretary wasn’t around to greet me, John Shelby Spong shows me to a chair in his downtown Newark office. In his black cassock and small silver pectoral cross, the tall, slender Spong seems anything but a seditious figure. “I think the church ought to be willing to run some risks,” he says in a soft North Carolina accent. “The seminary I went to had as its motto, ‘Seek the truth of God, come whence it may, cost what it will.’ People complain that the church these days is about the world’s agenda. I think that’s right. I think that’s what we ought to be about.”
Spong’s early ministry took place in the South during desegregation, his support for which proved costly. “It was a very difficult time. But it was right! You don’t put Christ on the side of segregation. And you don’t sit around and wait for a consensus to develop.” Spong learned to be confrontational, a strategy sure to cause problems in a church that has long values compromise and consensus. “When the issue of women came along, people were saying women can’t be priests, it violates a sacred tradition. Well, that’s plain wrong! So we did it.” Bishops who shared Spong’s view began defying the canons and ordaining women. In 1976 the canons were altered to allow such ordinations; in 1992, the Church of England followed suit.
“We changed this church,” says Spong of the clash over female ordination. “Then gay and lesbian people came along.”
But the way in which Spong and his allies changed the church stung his opponents – and engendered lasting bitterness. “The issue of women’s ordination was ‘forced’ in the 1970’s by the illegal ordination of the so-called ‘Philadelphia 11,’” a North Carolina clergyman wrote recently, referring to the uncanonical ordination of 11 female priests in 1974. “So it is now with the ordination of homosexuals – bishops have take authority into their own hands and ordained homosexuals openly and without consequences.”
The tensions caused by women’s ordinations were dwarfed by those surrounding homosexuality. In 1977 Paul Moore, then Bishop of New York, ordained a woman whom he knew to be a lesbian. The House of Bishops issued a statement criticizing this act, and in 1979 the church’s General Convention, a triennial national conclave of bishops and clergy and lay people, passed a resolution saying that “it is not appropriate for this church to ordain a practicing homosexual.” In the years following, 50 bishops signed a statement refusing to be bound by the resolution. One of them was Spong, who in 1989 ordained a gay man named Robert Williams, who claimed to be living in a committed relationship; when, shortly thereafter, Williams publicly mocked commitment and celibacy, Spong removed him from his position in the diocese. Williams later resigned from the priesthood. But the damage was done. In September 1990 the House of Bishops voted 80-76 to dissociate itself from Williams’s ordination. When, 12 days later, Righter, then Spong’s assistant, ordained Stopfel, many conservative bishops saw it as an act of open defiance.
By this point the Episcopal Church had reached an awkward – but characteristically Anglican – middle ground. Neither the House of Bishops nor the General Convention had enough votes to categorically approve or forbid homosexual ordinations. At the General Conventions in 1991 and 1994, motions by both sides were defeated. The 1994 House of Bishops also considered a new pastoral teaching document on human sexuality. Its attempt to find a “via media” on homosexuality pleased few partisans. Repudiating it, 106 bishops issued a statement proclaiming that “sexual relationships between members of the same sx” are “a denial of God’s plan”; meanwhile, 71 bishops signed a document, written by Spong and entitled “A Statement of Koinonia” (koinonia is a Greek word meaning “fellowship”), endorsing gay and lesbian ordination.
One paradox of all this furor is that Anglican clerical ranks, in the view of many observers, have long been disproportionately populated by homosexuals. According to Integrity, a national organization of gay Episcopalians, estimates of how many Episcopal clergy members are lesbian and gay range from 10 percent (1,500) to 40 percent (6,000). Among the church’s scores of closeted bishops are several who approved the Righter presentment, according to Kim Bynum, Integrity’s director of communications. “When people say to me that there’s a homosexual lobby in the church, I say, ‘Yes, there are two.’ There’s Integrity, which has been around for 22 years. And there’s the closeted, anti-gay homosexual lobby that goes back much further. The closeted gays in the church are among
Integrity’s fiercest enemies.”
Five weeks after the presentment, the House of Bishops met at the church’s Kanuga Conference Center in western North Carolina. There Browning appealed to the presenters to withdraw their charges. “My sisters and brothers,” he told the house, “this presentment is not the way to go deeper into the truths of one another.” But the presenters declined to back down. Instead, five of them met at Kanuga with five of their opponents, and offered to revoke the presentment in exchange for a moratorium on gay ordinations until the 1997 General Convention could act. After hours of discussion, their opponents rejected a deal and walked out. Affronted by this abrupt withdrawal, the presenters were then pressured, they say, to drop the presentment. They refused. The case proceeded.
The canons dictated that if a quarter of the church’s bishops consented to the presentment, the case would go to trial. Eventually, 76 consenting votes – 1 more than needed – arrived at the Presiding Bishop’s New York office. The presenters would have their day in court.
In the succeeding months, the presenters spelled out their position: the issue, they said, was not homosexuality but discipline and authority. Writing of “rogue bishops,” John David Schofield of the Diocese of San Joaquin demanded that the church “discipline those who violate the Bible’s teaching and the law of the church.” Righter and his defenders, wrote James Stanton of the Diocese of Dallas, “threaten not merely the collegiality of the bishops, but the very structures of the church!”
Righter shrugs off such concerns. “The first step in faith development,” he comments, “is to want an external authority. There are some people who need that, and some dioceses that are organized around that. But in the normal process of faith development, people are going to go beyond that point. Somehow we’ve got to have a church that allows the various stages of faith development to live together.” This, he suggests, is one of the Episcopal Church’s strengths. “If you want a church that has rules that are immutable,” he says, “don’t be an Episcopalian.”
When I ask Bishop Stanton about homosexuality, he stresses that that’s not what the presentment is about. “It’s about the role of Scripture within the church,” he says. “It’s about the authority of bishops. Does a bishop have authority to force change? Should bishops be pioneer thinkers or guardians of the faith? There are lots of issues here. It’s not about sex, it’s not about homosexuality. Homosexual persons are children of God and deserving of the pastoral ministry of the church.”
I ask Stanton how he views homosexuality. He says that “the evidence is lacking” for homosexuality as an inborn trait. “It’s not given at birth, apparently. Even if we could assert that there is a genetic component, they cannot show how a gene or any part of a gene affects behavior. They’re not able to. There is within the homosexual community a raging argument about that, too.”
I ask: “Since you think gay people shouldn’t be affirmed in their committed unions, are you saying that gay people are all by definition called to celibacy?”
“No. We’re saying Christianity, Christian faith, says that Jesus says that there is one form in which sexual relationships are intended by God: a marriage between a husband and wife.”
Later I ask Wantland, “What would you say to a gay parishioner?”
“First of all, God accepts all people where they are, as they are. All of us are incomplete, frail, fallible. But regardless of what my sexuality is, I may be in a situation in which sexual relations are not permitted to me, either heterosexual or homosexual. There are tens of millions of heterosexuals who are not married and who can’t be married right now, for whatever reason. It’s not appropriate for those people to be engaged in sexual relations outside of marriage. As to a person who is a homosexual in orientation, there’s a lot we don’t know about that condition. Though there’s not any firm evidence that it’s prenatal in its cause, it may be in some instances. There’s also thousands of people who have been able to be changed in their orientation.”
“So you think homosexuality can be changed?”
“Anyone who doesn’t hasn’t bothered talking to the thousands of people who have been changed. There are lots of untruths surrounding this subject – that gays are 10 percent of the population, that it’s a situation that can’t be changed. That’s not true. A lot of formerly homosexual people have lived happy, productive lives as heterosexuals.”
Indeed, Wantland has been supportive of so-called “ex-gay” groups. “There are a number of homosexuals who do agree with what we’re trying to do,” he has said. “They are Christians, members of the church, who are trying to lead chaste lives and resent the fact that there are people in the church that are saying that their efforts are meaningless.”
Asked what Jesus would say about dragging a brother bishop into court, Stanton balks at such a characterization. “It’s a church procedure, it’s not a legal procedure.” He rejects the words court and trial, although the church’s judicial body is officially known as the Court for the Trial of a Bishop. He also repudiates the word heresy. “This is not a heresy trial,” he insists. “They have named it that because it makes it sound sexy, makes it sound archaic.”
Wantland agrees: “The word heresy does not appear in any of the official formularies of the Episcopal Church. We have not used that term.”
Bishop Howe also refuses to use the word heresy, because, he says, it conjures up images he doesn’t like. Spong says dryly, “I don’t like the images it conjures up either.” In September, he decried “this ecclesiastical version of ethnic cleansing that has now been undertaken by the religious right wing of the Episcopal Church.” Wrote Spong: “My conviction is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which proclaims the message of God’s unbounded love for all that God has made, including God’s gay and lesbian children, is worth defending with all my might, and defend that Gospel I will.” That same month, Spong joined 35 other bishops in issuing a statement of solidarity with Righter: “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 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.”
Should Righter be found guilty, according to Episcopal canons? James E. Griffiss, editor of The Anglican Theological Review, says no, arguing that if the court decided for the presenters, the House of Bishops would thereby be granted a degree of authority that would move it closer to a “universal magisterium” of the sort enjoyed by the Pope. If there is anything that might appall some Episcopalians more than the thought of an openly gay priest, it is the thought of belonging to a church whose bishops have the sort of power exercised by John Paul II.
Almost lost amid the theological wrangling was Stopfel, 48, the gay man whom Righter ordained as a deacon, whom Spong subsequently made a priest and who is now the rector of Saint George’s Church in Maplewood, N.J. Raised in Pennsylvania in the Evangelical United Brethren Church, Stopfel knew at age 12 that he had a call to ministry. Yet he soon realized he was gay and left the church. Years later, he decided to enter a seminary “and then go back into the corporate world and help corporations become responsible citizens.” Soon after beginning study at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, Stopfel “heard the call again” and resolved to pursue parish ministry.
“It was not about a political agenda,” he notes. “And I still don’t preach a political agenda. In many ways, I’m more orthodox than many of my heterosexual colleagues.” About the presenters, he says: “I can’t judge their hearts. But I do think it’s evil. Anything that attempts to extinguish life and growth is evil. The discovery of my own holiness came through my struggle to identify myself as a gay man. And over and over, in my ministry, I’ve seen that when people discover that place where they’re authentic, they begin to blossom spiritually, to love the church and read the Bible, and the next thing I know they’re making a commitment to Jesus Christ.”
At exactly 8 o’clock on the morning of Feb. 27, the presiding judge of the ecclesiastical court, Bishop Edward Jones of the Diocese of Indianapolis, leads a prayer, then explains that the day’s business is to examine whether Episcopal doctrine forbids the ordination of sexually active homosexuals. If the court determines that it is a doctrinal issue, the trial will reconvene, probably in May, and then will determine if Righter has violated such doctrine. (It has since been announced that a decision will be handed down sometime after April 9; if Righter is found guilty, his punishment could take the form of anything from a mild reprimand to removal from office.)
The court is known to be divided on the issue. Jones and three other judges – Frederick Borsch of Los Angeles, Douglas Theuner of New Hampshire, and Arthur Walmsley (retired) of Connecticut – signed Spong’s pro-gay “Statement of Koinonia.” Three others – Donis Patterson (retired) of Dallas, Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota and Roger White of Milwaukee – signed the opposing “Affirmation.” (Patterson and Fairfield also consented to the presentment.) The two remaining judges – Robert Johnson of North Carolina and Cabell Tennis of Delaware – signed neither statement and are thus presumably “swing votes.”
A. Hugo Blankingship Jr., the Fairfax, Va., lawyer who represents the presenters, steps up to a podium and faces the judges. Righter is behind him at the defense table, along with Michael Rehill, his defense counsel and Chancellor of the Diocese of Newark; Wantland sits at the prosecutor’s table. “This case,” Blankingship says in a slow drawl, “first and foremost is about authority.” It is also, he says, about “order,” “marriage” and “family values.” It is soon clear that, in order to win a decision that there is doctrine on the ordination of homosexuals, Blankingship wishes to define “doctrine” broadly. The judges are permitted to interrupt, and they do, focusing on certain key questions: Does the church have a moral doctrine? If so, does it touch on ordaining homosexuals? How is such doctrine established? If the church does have a doctrine on homosexuality, is it somehow different – more fundamental, fixed, binding – than that on, say, capital punishment, abortion or apartheid?
Blankingship’s argument for the scriptural basis and essential fixity of Episcopal moral doctrine is challenged by Tennis, who reminds him that some Bible passages support slavery and that the church once did, too. Blankingship replies: “Scripture doesn’t accept slavery. It’s about how you live with slavery. Slavery back then was a sort of mutual agreement.” When he cites the marriage service as evidence of the church’s opposition to homosexual unions, Walmsley asks if the service might be interpreted in such a way as to allow parallel services for homosexuals. “We’re dealing with two different understandings of the nature of homosexuality,” he says. “How do persons live out their lives as homosexual Christians?” And Theuner argues that bishops are autonomous. “Spong,” he says, “doesn’t speak for the whole church.” Blankingship quickly replies, “For which some people would say, ‘Thanks be to God!’” The room erupts in laughter.
At lunch in a local greasy spoon, grandly bepurpled bishops mingle with unshaven working men from the neighborhood. The image calls to mind what Jesus was all about – and what Christianity is supposed to be about: living in communion with a wide range of people, including those who are perceived as riffraff, sinners and outcasts. We can’t always manage to live by Jesus’ two great commandments – to love God and one’s neighbor – but if we take ourselves seriously as Christians, it seems to me, we’re compelled to try.
In the afternoon, Rehill begins his case by challenging Blankingship’s opening references to order, authority and “family values.” “None of them,” Rehill states, “is what this case is all about. This case is about whether there is doctrine in the Episcopal Church prohibiting this ordination.” A narrow constructionist, Rehill argues that “doctrine is the fundamental tenets that must be believed in order to be a member of this church.” In the Episcopal Church, he says, the accepted sources of doctrine are Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer and the historic creeds. “If it isn’t there,” he states, “it isn’t doctrine.” The line recalls Johnnie Cochran’s mantra: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
Fairfield asks if Rehill would categorize the opening lines of the marriage service as doctrine. Rehill begins to answer, but Theuner asks him to read the passage aloud. Obligingly, Rehill opens the prayer book and proceeds to recite the famous words of the Anglican marriage service: “Dearly beloved…” After he has spoken those two words, the hall erupts in laughter. The image of Rehill performing a wedding of two of the judges – but which two? – is so ironically apt that nobody can fail to see the humor. For a moment, anyway, we are all united in mirth.
After Rehill has read the marriage service, Fairfield asks if those words are doctrine or discipline. Doctrine, Rehill says: they concern a couple’s relationship to God, not to each other. Nor does this doctrine imply that we must deny similar blessings to homosexuals. What we must do, he says, is to “look into our hearts” and recognize that “each of us reflects some piece of God….That includes our homosexual brothers and sisters.”
In his afternoon rebuttal, Blankingship says that if the Episcopal Church accepts the ordination of openly gay people, “we are going to stand in some considerable isolation. We will be deemed different.” For a moment he is not a lawyer presenting evidence, but an elderly churchgoer making a heartfelt plea that is irrelevant to the issues of the case – and he makes it with more emotion and force than anything else that’s been said all day.
Rehill, in his rebuttal, asks: “Does the Episcopal Church have a doctrine of sexual morality? Yes. I believe it has to do with love, with consent, with caring, with commitment.” White asks Rehill to cite the Scripture and tradition that support this view. Rehill replies that he has read the Gospels over and over. “I wanted to find out what our Lord had to say about homosexuality. And it isn’t there.” Jesus never mentioned homosexuality, Rehill notes. Neither did Jesus hold up heterosexual marriage as the only acceptable human condition. But he did pronounce the second great commandment: “ Love your neighbor as yourself.” “What Jesus is talking about,” Rehill says, “is love and compassion. He teaches us about loving and caring relationships. And then I look at these relationships” – committed same-sex unions – “and say, ‘Is there something about these relationships that’s inconsistent with the message Jesus brought to us?’” No, he says.
In these few words, Rehill has summed up my own understanding of the essential meaning of Christianity. As we rise for the closing prayer, I look at the people around me and know that many of them have very different views. Can we somehow manage to stay together despise our differences? If we can’t, I think, we all will have failed in some way.
NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE, 7 April 1996