When 10 Episcopal bishops brought heresy charges against one of their own for ordaining a non-celibate gay man, it became the subject of a rare church trial.
Now, Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop Frederick H. Borsch finds himself in the potentially uncomfortable position of acting as a judge in the heresy trial, which begins next month in Delaware, while approving of the ordination today in his own diocese of a non-celibate gay man to the priesthood.
The Rev. Mark Kowalewski, a deacon since June, is to be made a priest today in ancient ordination ceremonies at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.
Because of Borsch's role in the upcoming heresy trial, he will not ordain the candidate himself. Presiding will be Los Angeles Suffragan (assistant) Bishop Chester L. Talton.
At issue in the heresy trial of retired Bishop Walter C. Righter of Iowa--only the second such trial in church history--is his ordination five years ago of a non-celibate gay man as a deacon, the lowest of three orders of ordained clergy.
Seventy-five of the Episcopal Church's nearly 300 bishops consented to the heresy trial after 10 bishops accused Righter of violating canon law with the ordination. Two of the nine trial bishops are among those who brought the original charges.
On Friday, the trial court announced that it has rejected a motion to disqualify Borsch and three other bishops from serving as judges on grounds that they had either "knowingly ordained" a non-celibate gay candidate, or signed a statement in 1994 supporting such ordinations.
Borsch's office said Friday that he has never ordained a non-celibate gay or lesbian, but he did sign the 1994 statement, affirming that homosexuality and heterosexuality are "morally neutral" and both "can be lived out with beauty, honor, holiness and integrity . . . "
The statement also said that gays and lesbians "who choose to live out their sexual orientation in a partnership that is marked by faithfulness and life-giving holiness" should not be excluded from the ordained ministry.
That Borsch finds himself sitting as a judge of another bishop accused of doing something that Borsch himself permits points to how fluid the issue of human sexuality has become, not only in the Episcopal Church, but in virtually every denomination.
Kowalewski, who has a doctorate in social ethics, has been serving at St. Wilfrid of York Episcopal Church in Huntington Beach for the last several months. Borsch's office issued a statement on Friday saying that Kowalewski has been "well tested, educated and evaluated for his vocation. He has been found to be a dedicated Christian disciple, mature in his way of life, and in a committed and caring relationship of many years' standing."
Like the national church, Episcopalians in the Los Angeles diocese are divided over whether non-celibate gay candidates should be ordained. Even within Kowalewski's home parish in Huntington Beach, parishioners are reportedly divided.
But for those who have brought heresy charges against Righter, the retired Ohio bishop, there is an issue larger than sexuality: whether bishops can be held accountable for violating canon law.
"A presentment [of charges] is a canonical procedure given by the church to protect order and unity," Bishop James M. Stanton of Dallas told The Times last August. "The issue is church order. Our objective all along has been to say that if we have a teaching, how is it that some bishops can act against that teaching?"
Those who defend Righter say there is no doctrine in the church pertaining to the qualifications of clergy candidates, or limitations on a bishop's right to ordain a non-celibate gay candidate who is otherwise qualified.