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The Heretic

For the Second Time This Century, the Episcopalian Church is Putting Someone on Trial for Heresy. Bishop Walter Righter Stands Accused of Teaching False Doctrine and Breaking His Priestly Vows Because He Ordained an Openly Gay Man.

February 25, 1996|Mary Rourke | Mary Rourke writes about religion for The Times

Grace Cathedral seems like a vast and regal ark on this January afternoon. San Francisco's winter light sheds gold across the several hundred visitors who stand near the massive double doors, bolted shut. Two bishops of the Episcopalian church--one carrying a shepherd's staff, the other dressed in the flame color stole of his office--wait expectantly. The dense scent of beeswax candles fills the air as the choir rings Renaissance hand bells.

For centuries, whenever churches answer society's call and launch a program to feed the hungry or shelter the homeless, they bless the ministry and give it a name. The ministry to be blessed this day is new to the Episcopalian church. Called Oasis, it is an outreach program for gays and lesbians. But this service is about more than just Oasis.

Nothing makes this more apparent than the insistent knock at the door. In times of reform, dissenters fled to the church for sanctuary. In times of purge, clergymen were dragged from the altar. The man rapping on the door is both dissenter and clergyman: Walter Righter, silver-haired and broad-chested, polished and grandfatherly, cloaked in bishop's red. Accused of heresy.

Five years ago, in Tenafly, N.J., Righter ordained an openly gay man to the order of Episcopal deacon. Barry Stopfel has since been ordained a priest and is now rector of St. George's Church in Maplewood, N.J. He and his partner of 10 years, Will Leckie, live in the church rectory, as would any married couple. For assisting Stopfel on this journey, Righter has been charged by his peers with teaching false doctrine and breaking his priestly vow.

Righter's heresy trial, scheduled to start Feb. 27 in Wilmington, Del., is only the second in this century involving such a high official of the church, and the fourth in the church's 206-year history. That a heresy trial is taking place in the late 20th century is shocking enough. That it is taking place within the Episcopalian church, one of the most liberal Protestant denominations in the country, makes no sense even to some of its members. Labor unionists, civil rights activists, feminists and social reformers of every stripe have found a home in the Episcopal communion of 2.5 million. But for the last 20 years the church has been unraveling.

Women's ordination, placed in the canon in 1976, tore congregations apart. Considerable numbers broke away, and many a bishop refused to accept women clergy in his diocese. That same year, a new prayer book was approved, one with updated language that laity and clergy are still fighting about. The church was badly torn by women's ordination, changes in the prayer book, and the same can now be said about homosexual ordination," says church historian John Booty. "It's been one crisis after another." Or as Bishop William Frey of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., puts it: "Sometimes the church is like Noah's Ark. If it weren't flooding outside, you couldn't stand the smell inside."

The presentment to Righter (the official statement that accuses him) pierces the heart of the church--and perhaps its soul. There have been months of pretrial bickering about the Episcopalian understanding of the term doctrine. There hasbeen heated discussion about whether a statement signed by a majority of bishops is legally binding or simply a recommendation.

If the church does have a doctrine stating that a practicing homosexual cannot be ordained, as some of his peers insist, Righter has violated it. Further, if the Episcopalian church honors the Christian tradition that clergy either enter a conventional monogamous marriage or remain celibate, Righter also has failed to comply. If, however, these are "guidelines" instead of binding laws, as Righter and others insist, he has committed no crime. And if a bishop can choose to accommodate modern culture and expand the definition of marriage to mean monogamous, lasting, homosexual partnerships, Righter is not a criminal.

A man who could be a heretic ought to look more like the devil than Righter does. The word brings to mind the image of a brazen outlaw, even if history later blesses the heretic--like Martin Luther, who accused the Roman Catholic clergy of flagrant corruption and launched the Protestant Reformation; or Theresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun who challenged her own religious order and is now a doctor of the church; or Galileo, the 17th century layman who announced that the earth was not the center of the universe, who was exonerated only in 1992.

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