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EPISCOPAL CHURCH COURT ABSOLVES BISHOP WHO ORDAINED GAY MAN.

Byline: Gustav Niebuhr The New York Times

In a long-awaited decision likely to reverberate through America's Protestant denominations, an Episcopal Church court ruled Wednesday that an Episcopal bishop did not violate the church's ``core doctrines'' when he ordained a gay man as a deacon.

In its most personal sense, the decision absolves Bishop Walter C. Righter, retired Episcopal bishop of Iowa, of a charge of heresy that had been brought against him nine months ago by 10 of his fellow bishops. But the ruling carries much broader implications, as the court said the 2.4 million-member denomination has no law to prevent a bishop from ordaining homosexuals as deacons or priests. Wednesday's action essentially leaves the decision of ordaining gay men and lesbians to individual bishops.

Righter, 73, had faced two formal charges: heresy, for having signed a statement saying he supported the ordination of noncelibate homosexuals, and violation of his ordination vows, for having ordained the Rev. Barry Stopfel as a deacon, the rank below that of priest, in the Diocese of Newark in 1990.

At that time, Righter, who was retired, was working as an assistant to Bishop John S. Spong of Newark, an outspoken supporter of ordaining gay men and lesbians. Stopfel was later ordained as a priest and now serves a parish in Maplewood, N.J.

The decision, which was signed by seven of the eight bishops serving as the court's judges, represents a victory for backers of homosexual ordination, an issue that has emerged as the single most hotly contested issue among millions of American Protestants, lately outstripping even the controversy over abortion in the amount of time, energy and emotion devoted to the subject.

Righter and his wife, Nancy, attended Wednesday's court session. After the ruling, he declared himself relieved by the outcome. ``It's been a very invasive procedure,'' he said of the charges and hearing.

The court's ruling came after major setbacks for supporters of homosexual ordination in other Protestant denominations this year. In January, two small Lutheran congregations in San Francisco that had hired homosexual pastors were expelled from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And last month, the United Methodist Church's legislative body, its General Conference, voted to retain a clause in that church's rule book that pronounces homosexual practice ``incompatible'' with Christian teaching.

The court released its decision in Wilmington's Cathedral Church of St. John, a gray granite building where the court had last met, on Feb. 28, for an all-day hearing into the charges against Righter. A summary of the decision was read by a member of the court, Bishop Cabell Tennis of Delaware, who is also a lawyer, as he stood beneath a stained glass window portraying the Last Supper, while facing pews occupied by about 150 reporters, bishops, priests and Episcopal lay people.

In the decision, the court's majority identified the core doctrine of the Episcopal Church essentially as theological statements about the nature and mission of Jesus Christ, that he was God incarnate and was resurrected after crucifixion and burial. ``The court finds that there is no Core Doctrine prohibiting the ordination of a non-celibate, homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship with a person of the same sex,'' the decision stated.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 16, 1996
Words:539
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