Greenbelt Interfaith News
    U.S. Feature

    June 1, 1997

    The Quiet Revolution:
    How a Heresy Trial Has Rocked the Episcopal Church
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

    "A Call to Holy Life" is what they called it. It was an Episcopal seminary's attempt to formulate a policy on its students' moral behavior that would take into account the entire balance of the students' lives, rather than narrowing in on sexual acts.

    That, at least, was how the leaders of Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria described the new policy to the school's alumni. In a letter jointly written by Bishop Peter James Lee, chair of the board of trustees, and President and Dean Martha J. Horne, the seminary explained that its new moral conduct policy was "more in keeping with Anglican [Episcopal] comprehensiveness than the previous statement and more in keeping with the biblical balance of the Christian tradition."

    It was not the first time that the seminary had struggled with the question of how to regulate the moral lives of its students. A 1977 policy had barred "practicing" homosexuals from admission to the school, as well as "professing" homosexuals who publicly advocated homosexuality. In 1981, the seminary had revised its policy to distinguish between sexual behavior and sexual orientation, and it had allowed its students to argue "a particular moral viewpoint in the context of teaching and learning."

    The 1997 policy was meant to de-emphasize sexuality in determining a student's moral worth. Bishop Lee and Dean Horne explained that "applicants will be considered according to whether the total balance of their lives gives promise for effective service in the church."

    Essentially, the seminary had decided to allow such matters to be handled by the students' bishops. (Bishops, the highest level of clergy in the Episcopal Church, have jurisdiction over individual regions of the church.) The seminary board decided that the 1997-1998 catalogue would say, "The seminary respects the policies regarding sexual behavior maintained by bishops and other ministers with authority over individual seminary faculty and students and expects faculty and students to do the same." The catalogue would also state that members of the seminary were expected to exhibit, among other characteristics, "sexual discipline and responsibility." The previous policy had forbidden "sexual intercourse outside the bonds of marriage, adulterous relationships, and the practice of homosexuality."

    The new policy was not passed without incident; according to The Washington Times, two trustees resigned from the seminary board after the January 22 vote. The vote was 31 to 3 in favor of the new policy, however, and so the seminary must have hoped that the policy would receive similarly strong support from other Episcopalians.

    Virginia Seminary's new policy did not go unnoticed by a 66-year-old English clergyman who was spending a month at the seminary during a short sabbatical from his work. The clergyman belonged to the Church of England (or Anglican Church), from which is descended 34 national churches throughout the world, including the Episcopal Church. The national churches are independent of each other, but their beliefs and practices remain closely tied to each other, and they are all members of an association entitled the Anglican Communion. Thus, any action taking place in America's Anglican church, the Episcopal Church, was likely to affect the Anglican Communion as a whole.

    This much was obvious to the Englishman. And so, on February 10, the Most Rev. George Carey – archbishop of Canterbury, head of the Church of England, and spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion – stood before the seminarians who had gathered for worship and began to tell them what he thought of the new policy.

    "I know that this statement will distress some," the archbishop said. "For all I know, some of you may be wrestling with this issue personally. Let me make this personal. I do not find any justification, from the Bible or the entire Christian tradition, for sexual activity outside marriage. Thus, same sex relationships in my view cannot be on par with marriage, and the Church should resist any diminishing of the fundamental sacramentum of marriage."

    It would be easy to see this as the story of a seminary versus a bishop, or of American liberalism versus English conservatism. The matter is not that simple, though. Not only the Anglican Communion, but many other Christian denominations, have been in a state of crisis for several years now over the question of how Christianity should regard homosexual behavior. If matters appear particularly acute in the Anglican Communion, there is a reason for that: last year, the Episcopal Church tried one of its bishops for heresy.


    The road to the Episcopal Church's heresy trial was long and complicated. It began in 1977 when the church's bishops gathered together and discussed what sort of people could be ordained. (Ordination is the ceremony by which a Christian becomes a member of the clergy. In the Anglican Communion, the clergy consists of bishops, priests, and deacons.) The Episcopal Church had already decided in 1976 that "homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the Church." But did this mean that homosexuals could be ordained?

    At their 1977 meeting, the bishops passed a resolution against the ordination of "advocating" or "practicing" homosexuals. Two years later, the Episcopal Church's legislative body addressed the question as well. The General Convention, which meets every three years, is composed of the church's nearly 300 bishops and of representatives of the church's priests, deacons, and lay people. The General Convention passed a resolution stating that celibate homosexuals could be ordained but that it was "not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual."

    In the minds of some Episcopalians, though, the matter was not settled. On December 16, 1989, the bishop of Newark, the Right Rev. John Spong, ordained a practicing homosexual to be a priest.

    The head of the Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, found himself in a bind. On the one hand, he himself was sympathetic to the idea of ordaining practicing homosexuals; on the other hand, a unilateral action of this sort could destroy the unity of the Episcopal Church. On February 20, 1990, Bishop Browning issued a statement supporting the church's 1979 resolution. On Sept. 18, 1990, the House of Bishops met again and passed a resolution supporting Bishop Browning's statement. Bishop Browning himself dissented from the house's resolution. So did the assistant bishop of Newark, the Right Rev. Walter Righter. Twelve days later, Bishop Righter ordained Barry Stopfel, a practicing homosexual, to be a deacon.

    Bishop Spong's actions, it turned out, had opened the flood waters. Bishops who held conservative views on this matter argued in vain that Episcopal clergy must adhere to the church's moral teachings, and that Christian tradition only allows sexual acts to take place within marriage. "Fine," said the bishops who were liberal in their opinions on this issue. "Change the church's laws to allow homosexuals to marry. Until then, we will continue to ordain homosexuals who are in committed relationships."

    Increasingly frustrated by the ordinations of practicing homosexuals, ten bishops joined together in January 1995 to charge Bishop Righter with teaching and acting against the doctrine (teachings) of the Episcopal Church. (A five-year statute of limitations prevented them from charging Bishop Spong.) The charge immediately put the Episcopal Church in the media spotlight. Good heavens, said outside observers. In this day and age, is the Episcopal Church actually trying a bishop for heresy?

    Technically, it was not. The word heresy does not appear in the Episcopal Church's laws, and opponents of Bishop Righter disavowed the word, perhaps fearing that it evoked images of medieval inquisitors torturing heretics in order to make them change their beliefs. Nonetheless, it was a heresy trial, for it pivoted on the question of whether Bishop Righter had violated church doctrine by advocating the ordination of practicing homosexuals and by acting on that belief.

    In December 1995, the church's Court for the Trial of a Bishop met in order to determine whether the Episcopal Church possessed a doctrine on this matter; if the court decided that it did, Bishop Righter would then be placed on trial. Bishop Righter's lawyers argued that such ordinations did not violate Episcopal doctrine. The General Convention's 1979 resolution, they said, was purely a recommendation; the Episcopal Church has not made up its mind on this issue.

    The court handed down its decision on May 15, 1996; seven out of the eight bishops who were judging the matter agreed on the verdict. Mindful of being watched by the eyes of the media, the judges took care to say what they were not determining. "We are not deciding whether life-long, committed, same gender relationships are or are not a wholesome example with respect to ordination vows," the judges said. "We are not rendering an opinion on whether a bishop and diocese should or should not ordain persons living in same gender sexual relationships. Rather, we are deciding the narrow issue of whether or not under [the Episcopal Church's laws] a bishop is restrained from ordaining persons living in committed same gender relationships."

    Having said that, the court went on to give its verdict: the Episcopal Church "is in a period of indecision with respect to its moral doctrine concerning same gender relationships" and there is presently no doctrine in the Episcopal Church forbidding the ordination of practicing homosexuals.


    For Bishop Righter's opponents and his supporters alike, the court's decision was a battle cry. For his opponents – who hotly disputed the court's belief that there is no Episcopal doctrine on homosexuality – the verdict was an attack on Christian tradition. For Bishop Righter's supporters, it was a sign that the time had come to press for greater victories.

    Bishop Righter himself expressed his optimism in early April 1997 at a California conference on homosexuals in the Episcopal Church. "The acceptance of gays and lesbians is happening everywhere," he said. "There is a quiet revolution going on in many places about inclusion."

    To Episcopal supporters of gay rights, who have slowly gained victories in recent years, the revolution may indeed seem quiet and pervasive. That perhaps explains an odd episode which occurred on February 22 of this year. The Episcopal Church was planning to consecrate (ordain) the Rev. Charles E. Bennison Jr. to be a bishop, a highly sacred ceremony which would be attended by Bishop Browning. The Episcopal Church asked and received permission to hold the ceremony at Deliverance Evangelistic Church, a nondenominational church in Philadelphia. No one thought to mention to the church's pastor that one of the groups marching in the processional would be Integrity, the Episcopal Church's gay and lesbian organization.

    The pastor confiscated the group's banner. "We were not aware of the fact that they were having some kind of gay celebration, that gay people were involved in their service," the Rev. Benjamin Smith told the Philadelphia Daily News. "I did not know that they embraced gays as believers. I thought it was a regular Christian, Christ-honoring service."

    "We had no idea it was an issue for them," Bishop Bennison said in reply. "Gay and lesbian people are such a part of our life, it was a non-issue from our perspective."

    It was a statement that many in the Anglican Communion might dispute, not the least being the archbishop of Canterbury. On April 20, he appeared in a British television documentary and once more condemned the idea that practicing homosexuals should be ordained or allowed to marry each other.

    "Homosexuals are people loved by God, have gifts to offer, but the discipline of the church has not changed," the archbishop said. "The discipline of the church is that we recognize two lifestyles. One is marriage and the other is celibacy, and there can't be anything in between . . ."

    The archbishop's remarks angered the gay activist group OutRage, which promptly sent ten of its members over the wall of the archbishop's London residence in order to disrupt a photo session Archbishop Carey was holding. The archbishop, however, was doing little more than repeating the conclusion reached by the Church of England's House of Bishops in 1992. In their report Issues in Human Sexuality, the bishops showed sympathy for the beliefs of gay rights supporters, but confirmed the Christian tradition that sexual acts may only take place within heterosexual marriage.

    That doctrine, though, continues to be criticized, and sometimes by surprising sources. Only five days after the OutRage attack, Archbishop Carey's views were attacked again – this time by the very man who helped write the bishops' report.

    In a lecture given at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church in London on April 25, the Right Rev. Dr. John Baker said he now believes that gay marriages should be sanctioned by the Church of England. "I cannot see that married heterosexual clergy have a right to deny their homosexual brothers and sisters the potential spiritual blessing of a sexual relationship when they themselves enjoy that blessing," said the former bishop of Salisbury.

    In reply, Archbishop Carey noted that Bishop Baker's conclusions "suggest a very significant departure from the Church's current mind and discipline," but he added that the bishop's lecture "deserves to be read with respect and care as a contribution to continuing debate."

    The debate in fact continues in every part of the world. On April 18, the bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada agreed to retain "in principle" the denomination's present rule that men or women who are ordained may not commit homosexual acts, but to express that rule "in a wider context of theological understanding and pastoral sensitivity." The bishops of the Anglican Episcopal Church of Brazil, in an April letter to their church members, said that they could not come to any definite conclusions about same-sex marriages or the ordination of homosexuals, as the issue has not been determined within the Anglican Communion. On March 6, the bishops of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (Anglican) issued a statement apologizing for the church's past hostility toward homosexuals and calling for further study of the issue.

    In February, a more serious statement was issued by a conference of Anglican churches from Asia, Africa, and South America; most of the Anglicans in the world belong to these churches. The 80 conference delegates expressed grave concern about the departure of North American Anglicans from traditional teachings about homosexuality; a few days later the Standing Committee of the Province of South East Asia (Anglican) voted to break communion with any church which did not accept such teachings. Thus the controversy over homosexual ordinations and same-sex unions threatens to rupture, not only the Episcopal Church, but the entire Anglican Communion.

    Nevertheless, the Episcopal Church still has not officially sanctioned such activities. Over and over, the bishops and the General Convention have passed resolutions on the matter, and these resolutions nearly always include the same three statements: (1) the Episcopal Church affirms the traditional Christian teaching that sexual acts may only take place between a man and woman who are married, (2) for this reason, homosexuals may not take sexual partners, and homosexuals who do so may not be ordained, and (3) there are many in the Episcopal Church who disagree on this matter, and so further discussion is needed.

    The need for further discussion is shown by the fact that nearly every resolution of this sort has prompted a dissenting statement. In 1994, Bishop Righter signed one such statement, a fact which would be used as evidence against him at his trial. "A Statement of Koinonia" (koinonia is a Greek word meaning communion or fellowship) was penned by Bishop Spong, whose ordination of a practicing homosexual began the church's present crisis. The statement says, "We believe that homosexuality and heterosexuality are morally neutral, that both can be lived out with beauty, honor, holiness, and integrity and that both are capable of being lived out destructively. . . . We also believe that those who know themselves to be gay or lesbian persons, and who do not choose to live alone, but forge relationships with partners of their choice that are faithful, monogamous, committed, life giving and holy are to be honored."

    So far, 72 Episcopal bishops have signed the statement.


    Next July, the General Convention will meet to discuss important Episcopal issues, and it seems likely that homosexuality will be one of the hot items. Already, the church's liturgical commission, which studies matters of worship, has released a report on the question of whether to develop a ceremony to bless same-sex unions. The report essentially concludes that any or no decision on this matter will lead to further rifts between Anglicans.

    That the Episcopal Church is facing a crisis, no one disputes. The question is: What kind of crisis is this? Is the church fighting against faith-threatening forces who wish to dilute Christian tradition? Conservatives see this as an era of crisis like the fourth century, when Christians fought heretics in order to save traditional beliefs. Or is this instead a time when Christians must acknowledge that the Bible is not a scientific textbook, and that we have come to recognize that human sexuality is more complex than early Christians understood? Liberals see this as a time of crisis like the seventeenth century, when Christians realized that their faith would not be destroyed if they admitted that the Bible was wrong when it implied that the sun travels around the earth.

    These are two very different visions of the problem, and it seems hard to find a meeting ground between such disparate views. There remains one point of encouragement, though, which may have not have been noticed by the debate's harried participants. Despite the biting and sometimes vicious remarks which have been exchanged between the opponents in this issue, the debate as a whole has been carried on with a surprising amount of charity. Even Episcopalians who believe that their opponents are threatening the life of the Christian Church are often willing to acknowledge their opponents' good intentions. This is a welcome change from centuries past, when Christians had a reputation for responding to dissent by labelling their opponents as instruments of the devil.

    In the end, then, the greatest reward to come out of this crisis may not be an answer to the important questions being asked. The greatest reward may be the knowledge that it is indeed possible for Christians to love their enemies.

      Related Links

    Continuing the Dialogue: A Pastoral Teaching of the House of Bishops to the [Episcopal] Church as the Church Considers Issues of Human Sexuality (1994)

    A Statement of Koinonia (1994)

    Information on the Case of Stanton v. Righter in the Court for the Trial of a Bishop (links to official and unofficial papers)

    Kuala Lumpur Statement (1997)

    Report to the General Convention on the Blessing of Same-Sex Relationships (1997)

    HOME 1997 Articles

    ©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson