From .......... WORLD magazine

February 3, 1996




By Roy Maynard

The Episcopal Church's decades long slide into moral relativism may be coming to a jarring halt or a smash-up. Last week, one symbol of that slide the former treasurer of the Episcopal Church admitted in federal court that she embezzled more than $1.5 million while in office. She did it because she was ill and oppressed, she maintains.

And later this month, a heresy trial will determine whether Bishop Walter Righter, the retired bishop of Iowa, is guilty of "holding and teaching ......... doctrine contrary to that held by the church," and violating his vows by ordaining a practicing homosexual as a deacon.

That response, from conservative groups such as AWAKE and Episcopalians United, could herald "open division within the church," according to Rev. Coleman. But this soft-spoken Yankee who finds himself oddly at home in the South is no rabble-rouser; the seeds of dissent have been spread by the church leaders at the national level, he says.

For example, the head of the church, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, hired Mrs. Cooke as treasurer and for years waved away questions about her lavish lifestyle and her overbearing, harsh style of management. Even after she was fired and the church realized that $2.2 million was missing, Mr. Browning resisted calls to prosecute her. He echoed her contention that the problem wasn't criminal, it was sociological.

Mrs. Cooke embezzled the money, she has claimed, because of the "pain, abuse, and powerlessness" she suffered on the job, she told church leaders. And in court last week, she further alleged that the theft was due to a mental illness, perhaps a "bipolar mood disorder," according to her attorney, Plato Cacheris. The lawyer also said Mrs. Cooke doesn't remember events involving the embezzlement.

The church has seized the two homes Mrs. Cooke and her husband, an Episcopal priest, bought with the money. She faces up to three years in jail, but will ask for minimal sentencing because she is seeing a psychiatrist.

The church is also reacting to the alleged crimes of conviction by Bishop Righter by calling him before an ecclesiastical court. In 1994 he signed a document called the "Statement in Koinonia," which said homosexuality is a legitimate lifestyle for Christians and even for priests. It calls for ordaining non-celibate homosexuals. His trial is set for Feb. 29 in Wilmington, Del. It's the second heresy trial in the church's history. The first, in 1924, convicted a retired bishop of teaching that Christianity had been superseded by communism.

The Rev. Coleman points out that four of the nine members of the court have also signed the Statement, so a similar conviction is unlikely. And Bishop Righter has the so far unspoken support of the presiding bishop. Bishop Browning, by the way, shakes off criticism of these pro-homosexual stands, saying that such advanced thinking has "threatened the hell out of some people."

These and other tremors in the body of the Episcopal Church have shaken loose some congregations. St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Rancho Cordova, Calif., for example, left the denomination at the first of the year.

In January, the parish announced it would become Morning Star Community Church, linked to the Willow Creek Association.

Rev. Coleman, for now, is choosing to remain in the denomination he loves partly, he says, because the controversy within it is only a symptom of a greater controversy that is societal in scope. "Hawaii is now considering a state law to allow homosexual marriage," he notes.

Also, Mr. Coleman notes that church groups in other eras have been "led by people who don't have confidence in God. It happens almost every century. It doesn't make it any easier, but we know that God eventually holds up those who are faithful to him. "

Picture caption- "Bipolar mood disorder": Ellen Cooke, surrounded by her legal defense team, walks to federal court.



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