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10 Bishops Attack 'Flawed' Ruling

Doctrine: Episcopal conservatives opposed to ordaining gays plan to form group to uphold traditional teachings.

June 01, 1996|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

Charging that the Episcopal Church is beset by moral confusion, 10 conservative bishops plan to take their fight against the ordination of non-celibate gays and the blessing of same-sex unions to the church's highest policymaking body.

The bishops also announced this week that they will form a new "fellowship" within the church to minister to parishes whose bishops fail to uphold traditional church teachings on sexual morality.

However, the prelates left the 2.5-million-member denomination in suspense over whether they will appeal a church court acquittal of a liberal bishop on heresy charges for ordaining a non-celibate gay man as a deacon in 1990. The court ruled two weeks ago that there is no church doctrine prohibiting such ordinations.

The 10 bishops who filed the charges against retired Bishop Walter C. Righter of Iowa called the 7-1 court ruling "deeply flawed and erroneous." They have until June 15 to file an appeal.

Righter, 73, was an assisting bishop in Newark, N.J., when he ordained the Rev. Barry Stopfel as a deacon. Stopfel, who is now a priest, lives with his life partner in the parish rectory at St. George's Episcopal Church in Maplewood, N.J.

"The court's disclaimer notwithstanding, its decision has swept away two millennia of Christian teaching regarding God's purposes in creation, the nature and meaning of Christian marriage and the family, the discipleship in relation to sexuality to which we are called as followers of Jesus and the paradigm of the church as bride and Christ as bridegroom," the bishops said in a statement.

The court ruling leaves no doubt that the Episcopal Church needs a law specifically barring such ordinations and the blessing of same-gender unions, the bishops said.

"The problem has not been a lack of clarity regarding the church's understanding of these matters," the bishops said. "Rather it has been the growing number of bishops and dioceses that have chosen to disregard and contradict this understanding both by their teaching and in their actions."

They plan to propose such a law at the church's General Convention in Philadelphia in July 1997. The conservative bishops will meet at least once before the convention to map their strategy, said Bishop James Stanton of Dallas, one of the 10 who brought the heresy charges.

Liberals have previously announced plans to counter the conservative initiatives.

In the meantime, Stanton and other conservatives said they will form a new fellowship within the Episcopal Church in which conservative bishops will minister to parishes whose own bishops do not uphold traditional church teaching on sexual morality. Stanton said there were hundreds of such parishes in the country.

Among them is All Saints Episcopal Church in Long Beach, which publicly disassociated itself from the ordination in the Southland last January of a non-celibate gay priest.

That ordination was approved by the Rt. Rev. Frederick H. Borsch of Los Angeles, who was one of the judges in the heresy trial, but who stepped down after challenges to his impartiality and before the acquittal was rendered.

"We declare our conviction that [orthodox bishops'] must be provided to clergy and laity in dioceses where the bishop has departed from the standards and norms set forth by the church's teaching," the conservative bishops said in announcing their new fellowship.

Stanton said the bishops are not considering breaking away from the Episcopal Church. And for the moment, he said, there are no plans for them to enter the dioceses of liberal bishops. Instead, the idea is to lend pastoral support through an informal network to parishes and dioceses that want to uphold traditional morality.

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