Subject: Re: Episcopal Heresy Trial

From: Scot Bear ......... From: GayNews

Date: 12/25/95


Sunday, December 17, 1995

By Shirley Salemy Tribune Staff Writer




In an age of religious freedom and a smorgasbord of faiths, the notion of being tried for heresy conjures grim tableaus of medieval times when heretics were exiled, imprisoned, even tortured and executed.

The crime of heresy has almost faded from the modern scene, and along with it the grisly punishments that were dramatic fodder for 12th and 13th Century artists.

But in a rare and divisive case unfolding in the Episcopal Church involving a retired bishop who once served on the board of trustees of an Evanston seminary, the crime of heresy is getting a modern stage--and interpretation.

The Episcopal Church is preparing for only the second heresy trial of a bishop since the church's founding in America in 1789. One Chicago Episcopal leader helped write a defense brief in the case, and another will serve as a legal adviser to the Court for the Trial of a Bishop.

At stake in the trial is not death but the bishop's standing in the church. The most severe punishment would be suspension or revocation of his ministry duties, church authorities say. And at the heart of the trial are issues of sexuality, inclusiveness and church authority.

These prickly principles are under debate not only in parishes in Chicago and in Episcopal dioceses across the country but also in other U.S. denominations.

Retired Bishop Walter C. Righter ordained a practicing gay man as a deacon in the diocese of Newark, N.J., in 1990, one of several such ordinations that have provoked dissent in the church. He also has disagreed with a resolution of the church's assembly of bishops about ordaining a practicing homosexual and has signed a statement affirming his belief that gay and lesbian people in committed relationships should not be excluded from the clergy.

For those actions, he was accused of two offenses: violating his ordination vows and "holding and teaching . . . doctrine contrary to that held by this church," or heresy, according to documents filed by both sides of the case.

Bishop William C. Wantland of Eau Claire, Wis., wrote in a letter to the leader of the church when submitting the presentment, the document detailing the charges.

Wantland and other bishops hope to use the rare forum of an ecclesiastical trial to force a resolution of the long-divisive issue.

Righter says there is no official church doctrine barring such ordinations.

Righter's case was chosen because his ordination of Rev. Barry Stopfel was closest to passing the five-year statute of limitations for prosecution, the bishops say.

Ten bishops signed the document in January. In August, by a slim margin,the church's House of Bishops agreed that the charges should go to trial.

said Bishop James M. Stanton of Dallas, a spokesman for the bishops who signed the presentment.

Righter, retired bishop of Iowa who formerly was a trustee at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, denies that his actions as assistant bishop in Newark violated any church doctrine. Righter said he has

said Righter, 72, who lives in Alstead, N.H.

The 10 bishops, he said,

Episcopal priests have been tried for heresy before, according to Robert Prichard, professor of church history at Virginia Theological Seminary. But only once before in the church's history has a bishop been put on trial for heresy. That was William Montgomery Brown, retired bishop of Arkansas, who was deposed in 1924.

At issue then were Brown's beliefs in communism and his rejection of church creed, according to Prichard's book, A History of the Episcopal Church.

Righter's trial was scheduled for Chicago. It now is tentatively scheduled for Wilmington, Del., in February.

Daniel Pascale, director of the administrative office of the Illinois Courts and an active member of St. James Cathedral in Chicago, will serve as one of the legal advisers to the nine-bishop court.

Attitudes about heresy trials have changed since the trials held from the 4th to the 18th Centuries, according to Martin E. Marty, a professor at the University of Chicago's Divinity School.

Marty said. But in the modern world and with so many churches for worshipers to choose from, the power of the heresy trial is gone, he said.

The Episcopal Church is clearly divided over the issue of gay and lesbian people in the life of the church.

Bishop Frank T. Griswold III of Chicago recalled conversations he had with two congregations within one week earlier this year. One group felt strongly that the church should bless homosexual people who wish to live in a relationship with one another. But the other group was deeply pained about it.

The initial reaction among many in the church was dismay at the division and distraction the charges portended, said Richard J. Hoskins, chancellor of the diocese of Chicago, who contributed to the brief in defense of Righter.

said Hoskins, a Chicago attorney and adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University.The court will give a principled opinion on the issue, making it clear where the church stands on the issue and clearing the air, he said.

Stopfel, who has become a priest and is rector of a church in Maplewood,N.J., remains in a gay relationship. He said that membership in his church has grown 30 percent since he took over.

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