An Episcopal Catch-22

One easy way to create fog is to bring together clashing fronts of lawyers and theologians.

The soup got thick this week in Wilmington, Del., site of the heresy trial of Bishop Walter Righter, who stands accused of violating his vows by ordaining a noncelibate gay man.

While homosexual issues took center stage, this complex trial pivots on another question: Does the Episcopal Church have a doctrine that says sex outside of marriage is sin? Today, this question leads directly to another: Will the Episcopal Church change its rites to allow same-sex marriages?

A verdict is probably weeks away. A conviction is almost unthinkable since at least four of the nine bishops on the court have performed or openly endorsed ordinations such as the one Righter performed.

The church establishment, led by Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, backs the gay cause and Righter recently added evidence of this fact. At the time he performed the controversial 1990 ordination of Barry Stopfel, Righter already was retired and assisting Newark Bishop John "Jack" Spong, the Episcopal left's clearest voice. Why did Righter perform the rite?

"Jack and the presiding bishop agreed it was better for Jack not to ordain Barry ... because (Spong) was a lightning rod for controversy, and I was kind of a safe person from Iowa," Righter told Religion News Service.

Stopfel's ordination came 12 days after the House of Bishops affirmed a statement on sexuality by Browning and his Council of Advice. This said, in part: "We reaffirm the traditional teaching of the church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian sexual morality. Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard."

Timing is everything. Righter claims the presiding bishop offered strategic advice to those planning to defy his own Council of Advice. A church spokesman said Browning has neither confirmed nor denied the accuracy of Righter's statement.

Meanwhile, leaders of Integrity, the church's gay-rights caucus, say between 10 and 40 percent of Episcopal clergy are gay, lesbian or bisexual and that 42 or more bishops have ordained noncelibate homosexuals.

The bishops who filed the presentment against Righter knew the odds were against them, said Bishop James Stanton of Dallas. "But we had to do something to let people know that some of us were not going to let centuries of Christian doctrine be thrown out without opposition," he said.

A parish priest took a similar step on Feb. 24 to test the status of doctrine out in the heartland. Five years ago, Father J. Stephen Freeman of Oak Ridge, Tenn., wrote an essay entitled "Ecclesial Perestroika" that sparked national debate about reform. This time, he proposed a simple canon law that said: "All clergy ... in the Diocese of East Tennessee shall maintain a standard of faithful sexual conduct, abstaining from all sexual relations outside the bonds of holy matrimony."

Many accused Freeman of having a hidden agenda because he focused on sex outside of marriage, instead of homosexuality.

"My intent could not have been clearer," Freeman said. "Everyone knows that homosexuality is a big issue, but that's not the only issue. ... Marriage is the real issue."

Freeman lost -- 117 to 60. The victors said the law was redundant. The canon's defeat "does not mean we do not uphold a standard, which we do have in our ordination vows and in the discipline of the church," said Bishop Robert Tharp, who recently was hailed as one of America's bravest bishops by Integrity's founder.

It's an ecclesiastical Catch-22. Righter's supporters say it's acceptable to ordain noncelibate homosexuals because the national church lacks a canon law that clearly establishes enforceable doctrine. Then strategists in this camp argue against the passage of canon laws on marriage and sex, saying they are redundant.

This raises yet another question: Is "Episcopal doctrine" an oxymoron? As Episcopal Divinity School Dean William Rankin wrote recently, "Heresy implies orthodoxy, and we have no such thing in the Episcopal Church."