Testing church doctrine: at the Righter trial – Bishop Walter Righter

William L. Sachs

Wilmington, Delaware

THE HALL of St. John’s Cathedral was converted into a courtroom on February 27 and nine Episcopal bishops were seated in a semicircle to consider charges against retired Bishop Walter Righter. Thirteen months earlier ten bishops brought a “presentment” or call for discipline against Righter because in September 1990 he ordained a noncelibate gay man as a deacon. That man, Barry Stopfel, later was ordained to the priesthood and now is rector of a church in New Jersey.

Billed as a “heresy” trial, the event provoked a great deal of media curiosity. If Righter was deemed a heretic, what would this mean for Stopfel? What would it mean for the rest of the Episcopal Church?

While heresy might be too sensational a term, a basic issue in Episcopal life was on the table. The Episcopal Church is numerically smaller than most mainstream groups, yet is surprisingly diverse. Shoulder to shoulder in the tightly packed room were Righter’s wife, Stopfel and his partner, Will Leckie, and numerous supporters. A few feet away sat several of the presenting bishops and their supporters. The scene was a vivid reminder of how closely knit the church is in some ways, and also of how deep the fault line runs. This denomination prides itself on creatively mixing tradition and innovation, faithfulness to precedent and respect for iconoclasm. That elasticity is now severely strained.

A. Hugo Blankingship Jr., the lawyer for the accusers, made plain the seriousness with which the accusers view the situation. Explaining why Righter had been charged with violating Christian doctrine, he argued that “this case is about authority, about order, and about doctrine, especially the Christian ideal of marriage and faithfulness. It is about knowing who we are as Christians.” The church’s doctrine is based on the creeds and the Prayer Book. But it is especially grounded in the Bible. “What does the Bible teach about sexual morality?” he challenged. “Doesn’t this church have such a doctrine, and doesn’t the Christian sexual ethic exclude adultery and fornication?”

Most of the judges questioned the nature of these assertions. They freely interrupted legal presentations with questions, and several members of the court made classical Anglican assertions. “Is doctrine fixed and never changing?” one inquired. “Our church has changed its view of divorce. Does that mean that doctrine is the Christian story itself, or the grammar of the story?” “Is doctrine determined by church proceedings?” another wondered. “Which resolutions of our conventions qualify as doctrine, and which do not?” “The church once accepted slavery, and devalued women, and used scripture in support,” yet another added. “Didn’t our position change?”

BUT BLANKINGSHIP held firm, insisting that doctrine is made through church deliberations, and maintaining that statements by the church’s bishops and General Convention in the late 1970s disapproving the ordination of noncelibate homosexual persons must be seen as doctrinal and binding. He argued for an immutable, biblically grounded sexual morality. “The issue is not whether or not such a doctrine exists. The doctrine of the church on moral standards has always been there.” He acknowledged that Episcopalians are free to discuss different positions, but he rejected adopting church practices that differ from basic standards. The church’s ordination liturgy requires the ordained to be a “wholesome example,” he cited, noting that the “tradition of the ages is behind this affirmation.” Ending with a flourish, he declared that to change basic principles would be to “sow the seeds of anarchy.”

When Michael Rehill, lawyer for Righter–and, implicitly, for Stopfel–began his presentation, most observers expected that he would stress the idea of doctrinal development. Surely he would hold that interpretation of basic Christian sources is culturally conditioned, and thus subject to reconsideration in new contexts. Surely he would argue for the breadth of the church’s diversity and vigor of its ministry to diverse people and lifestyles.

But Rehill took a surprising tack. He argued that the case is indeed about whether there is a doctrine prohibiting the ordination of homosexual persons, but the insisted that no such doctrine has been articulated by Episcopalians. Taking a “minimalist” approach, he argued that true doctrine is restricted to a few central affirmations, about such matters as the incarnation and the inspiration of scripture.

Rehill challenged the idea that Episcopal bodies ever intended to articulate doctrine on homosexuality. He contended that it is unclear when the church speaks with the force of doctrine, and that one could assume that it rarely does. Its resolutions and pronouncements at most define church discipline. He depicted recent Episcopal statements on ordaining homosexual persons as worthy of consideration but not binding. To the astonishment of the judges who questioned him closely, Rehill maintained that the Episcopal Church often speaks in terms of discipline but rarely in terms of doctrine.

Such an argument may effectively defend Righter by undercutting the presenters’ reliance on statements from the bishops and the General Convention. If these statements are not matters of doctrine, then Righter is at most guilty of violating church discipline. But the defense’s approach makes it even more obvious that the church lacks clarity about what its doctrine is and how doctrine is made. At this point, the matter is in the hands of the judicial body. Said one of the lawyers: “There is nobody left to decide. Now this court must decide whether there is enforceable doctrine or not.”

COPYRIGHT 1996 The Christian Century Foundation

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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