WHEN IN THE COURSE OF HUMAN EVENTS
by David Sisler
Barry Stopfel is a non-celibate homosexual. He has been living in a sexual partnership with another man for ten years.
On September 30, 1990, Bishop Walter C. Righter of the Episcopal Church ordained Barry Stopfel to the diaconate.
On January 27, 1995, the House of Bishops charged Bishop Righter with two violations of the Canons of the Episcopal Church, specifically, "holding and teaching publicly or privately, and advisedly, any doctrine contrary to that held by this Church," and "any act which involved a violation of his Ordination vows."
On February 27, 1996, the Court for the Trial of a Bishop met to consider whether or not the Episcopal Church has a doctrine which opposes the ordination of practicing homosexuals. If the Court decides that such a doctrine exists, Bishop Righter will face only the fourth heresy trial in the Church's 206 year history. The Court adjourned after two days to consider the testimony and make their decision.
Those facts are not in question. Further, both sides agree that Holy Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer, together with the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed, are the only recognized sources of the doctrine of the Episcopal Church. The issue which faces the Court for the Trial of a Bishop, and ultimately, the Episcopal Church is deceptively simple: is there a doctrine which prohibits a bishop from ordaining a man or woman to the priesthood who is a non-celibate homosexual? Ultimately, the decision will reflect, or reflect upon, the Church's teaching regarding the correctness or incorrectness of active, homosexual behavior, but for now, that is not the issue.
The Presenters cite committee reports and resolutions from the past twenty years of Church deliberations as proof that such a doctrine exists. Their evidence begins with the 1977 report of the Committee on Theology ("In the case of a practicing homosexual, ordination is inadmissible... [Such] ordination ... would require the Church's sanction of such a life style, not only as acceptable, but worthy of emulation. Our present understanding of biblical and theological truth would make this impossible") and continues through the 1994 Resolution of the House of Bishops, affirming "the teaching of the Church that the normative context for sexual intimacy is lifelong, heterosexual, monogamous marriage."
Perhaps even more telling is the statement of the Presiding Bishop, The Most Rev. Edmond Browning, and his Council of Advice, on February 20, 1990, following the earlier ordination of another non-celibate homosexual by another bishop: "We reaffirm the traditional teaching of the church on marriage, marital fidelity and sexual chastity as the standard of Christian morality. Candidates for ordination are expected to conform to this standard. Therefore, we believe it is not appropriate for this church to ordain a practicing homosexual, or any other person who is engaged in heterosexual relations outside marriage."
Bishop Righter and his defenders state, "There is no doctrine of the Episcopal Church on the issue of whether it is permissible or impermissible to ordain non-celibate homosexual persons... There is no article of faith stating that it is impermissible to ordain a non-celibate homosexual person that must be accepted by the members of the Church." The proofs offered by the Presenters, Righter declares, are not established doctrine and have never been accepted as such by the entire Church.
If the Court for the Trial of a Bishop decides that a doctrine prohibiting the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals does not exist, and recent statements from the Court suggest that will be their finding, then the Episcopal Church must declare their position in a manner which everyone will recognize as doctrine. To fail to do so will leave the Church with the message that its members are free to follow the confusing path of "to each his own."
The Episcopal Church must reaffirm its historic position that its decisions are based on the timeless revelation of Scripture not on the drifting premise of evolving human understanding. Failing this, the Church will nurture the seeds of its own destruction.
If a definitive doctrine is established (or if the Court decides that such a doctrine has already been established) declaring that non-celibate homosexuals cannot be ordained to the ministry of the Episcopal Church, then those who advocate their ordination must either come under the authority of Church doctrine or sever their relationship with the Church.
When in the course of human events such an impasse is reached, decent respect to the opinions of mankind demand that the bands which have connected the several parties be severed. To stay and violate the established doctrine of the Church (or any other organization, religious or secular, which has definite, profound teachings and rules of conduct) or to stay and wage war against that doctrine is ethically, and morally, wrong.
Footnote: In early May the Church court ruled that Bishop Righter did not act improperly in ordaining Mr. Stopfel.
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 4/13/96
Copyright 1996 by David Sisler
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