In a move that is certain to escalate tension within Christian churches over gays in the clergy, an Episcopal bishop will face a trial in a rare church court for ordaining a gay man five years ago.
The stunning announcement Friday from Episcopal Church headquarters in New York that retired Bishop Walter C. Righter, 71, of Iowa would be tried by a panel of nine bishops came after months of attempts by Presiding Bishop and Primate Edmond L. Browning to settle the controversy out of court.
Rebuffing Browning's entreaties, 10 conservative bishops who brought the charges against Righter forced Browning's hand by securing the required consents for a trial from at least 75 of the nation's 297 Episcopal bishops. Among the nine bishops who will act as trial judges is the Rt. Rev. Frederick H. Borsch, the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles.
Righter could face penalties ranging from an admonition to being stripped of his priesthood if he is found guilty of the charges. Righter ordained Barry Stopfel as a deacon in September, 1990, knowing that Stopfel was a non-celibate homosexual. Righter was serving as assistant bishop of Newark, N.J., at the time.
A year later, Stopfel was ordained to the priesthood by Newark Bishop John Shelby Spong and now serves as rector or senior pastor of one of the largest parishes in the Newark diocese. He lives with his partner of 10 years in the parish rectory.
James Solheim, a spokesman for Browning, said that to his knowledge no Episcopal bishop has ever been brought before an ecclesiastical court, although accusations that stopped short of a trial have been made against other bishops.
In 1987, Spong was accused of heretical writings. Similar charges were lodged in the 1960s against the late San Francisco Bishop James Pike. But the matters never went to trial.
Some feared that Righter's trial would not only threaten collegiality among the nation's Episcopal bishops, but deepen strife within the 2.5-million member church over the volatile issue of homosexuality.
"I'm afraid that's what this will do," Solheim said.
It was also expected to refocus debate on the controversial issue in other denominations. In the last several years, virtually every Christian denomination has struggled with the issue of whether to ordain practicing gays and lesbians, among them the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), American Baptist Churches and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
At times, decisions by local congregations to call a gay member of the clergy have been reversed by higher authorities within the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. Like the Roman Catholic Church, most Protestant churches will ordain gay candidates so long as they remain celibate.
Righter was indignant about the charges against him. "I think it's shocking," he said in a telephone interview from his home in New Hampshire. "It's outrageous. It's harassment. It's a nuisance to the church. It's a waste of time and money. The enormous cost involved in this is going to be something the church hesitates to recognize," Righter said.
But one of the leading conservative bishops who brought the charges, the Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton of Dallas, said he was encouraged that at least 75 other bishops believed the issue was important enough to go to trial.
Stanton said that frayed relationships among the bishops could not get worse.
"We hope it restores a sense of collegiality, but collegiality has been destroyed by those who act on their own. A presentment [of charges] is a canonical procedure given by the church to protect order and unity."
Stanton, who was rector of St. Mark Episcopal Church in Glendale until his election in Dallas 2 1/2 years ago, said the real issue was not one of ordaining homosexuals, but of obeying church canons.
"The issue is church order," Stanton said. "Our objective all along has been to say that if we have a teaching [against ordaining practicing gays and lesbians], how is it then that some bishops can act against that teaching?
"Those who have done these ordinations claim high moral authority to do so. But they are acting out of accord with the teaching of the church," Stanton said in a telephone interview from Dallas.
Righter, in a written reply to the charges May 10, denied violating canon law.
"There is no doctrine in this church pertaining to the qualifications of ordinands to the diaconate or limitations on a bishop's right to ordain a canonically qualified candidate," Righter's brief said. "This presentment is based on a misunderstanding of the doctrine of the Episcopal Church and the sources of such doctrine," Righter wrote.
Righter said he regretted the impact the controversy would have on Stopfel and others in the gay and lesbian community.
"It's too bad he has to go through this," Righter said. "I don't think anybody is thinking of what this does to the gay community, who are putting their lives on the line for the sake of something that is very important to them. It's putting them through a wringer."
No trial date has been set, and the process could take two years, a spokesman said.
Besides Bishop Borsch of Los Angeles, the other bishops scheduled to sit as trial judges are the Rt. Revs. Donis Patterson of Dallas, Cabell Tennis of Delaware, Arthur Walmsley of Connecticut, Roger White of Milwaukee, Ted Jones of Indianapolis, Robert C. Johnson of North Carolina, Andrew Fairfield of North Dakota and Douglas Theuner of New Hampshire.