Is there an innocent party in the house?

The events surrounding the trial of Bishop Walter Righter, the twice divorced former bishop of Iowa, become increasingly bizarre. The issue upon which the pre-trial hearing has focused – whether or not the Episcopal Church has a doctrine about homosexuality – will prove crucial in deciding the future of American Anglicanism as a Christian body. But fascinating too is the difficulty, in a church so morally compromised, in finding judges who have not themselves committed, or caused to be committed, the very crime of which the accused is indicted:

THE ECCLESIASTICAL TRIAL of Episcopal Bishop Walter Righter for ordaining an active homosexual has had one thing going for it from the start: it has never been dull.

One of two key recent reports reveals that Los Angeles Bishop Fred Borsch, one of the nine judges hearing the case against Righter, showed up – within days of a failed prosecution challenge to his impartiality – at the ordination of a non-celibate gay man in his diocese.

Meanwhile, a media report quoting Righter suggests that the presiding bishop, Edmond Browning, consulted with Newark Bishop John (Jack) Spong on arrangements for the same 1990 gay ordination that led to trial proceedings against former Newark Assistant Bishop Righter on charges of violating church doctrine and his ordination vows.

The comment in question comes from a December Religion News Service report quoting Righter as saying that: “Jack and the presiding bishop agreed it was better for Jack not to ordain Barry Stopfel – the gay man in question)…because he (Spong) was a lightning rod for controversy, and I was kind of a safe person from Iowa, and not too many people paid attention to me.”

Reaction to word of Browning’s possible role in the matter has already been notched up by another fact: Righter’s ordination of Stopfel came within a fortnight after the Episcopal House of Bishops backed an earlier statement by Browning and his Council of Advice strongly “disassociating”? themselves with Spong’s late 1989 ordination of another active gay, Robert Williams (who has since died of AIDS).

One of Righter’s accusers, Bishop John Howe of Central Florida, has asked Browning for some answers.

Howe pointed out that the 1990 statement endorsed by Browning, his Council and the House reaffirmed traditional church teaching on sexuality and the expectation that ordination candidates will conform to that standard, it also decried Spong’s ordination of Williams and the “hurt and confusion”? it caused for many church members. “We believe that good order is not served,” the statement said, “when bishops, dioceses, or parties act unilaterally. We believe that good order is served by adherence to the actions of General Convention.”

Writing in The Living Church, Howe called on Browning to reassure the church “that you in no way approved, condoned or sanctioned [an] action that you had personally decried” just months earlier. Browning had made no response to the story by deadline. But Episcopal News Service Director Jim Solheim seemed to have some doubts about it, telling The Christian Challenge he “can’t imagine the presiding bishop telling Spong, or any other bishop in this church, how to proceed with ordinations,” which are “a local matter.”

However, he went on to say that it is “possible, maybe even likely” that Browning and Spong talked at some point. “Given Spong’s high visibility on the issue, and the stinging action of the House of Bishops, asking Righter to do the ordination would seem such a logical idea. And Spong is going to do what’s right for the diocese, in my opinion.”

Still, Solheim maintained that “Howe doesn’t have much of an issue here but seems to be doing everything he can to stir things up. Why should the presiding bishop be drawn into a defensive response, trying to recall what he and Spong might have talked about in 1990?”

Bishop Borsch, meanwhile, drew the ire of the Episcopal Synod of America’s (ESA) President, Donald P. Moriarty, for allowing his suffragan, Chester Talton, to ordain as priest an “individual who professes a lifestyle which publicly features fornication – voluntary sexual intercourse between unmarried persons – and which is declared by Holy Scripture to be ‘an abomination.”’?

An open letter from Moriarty indicated that the January 13 ordination of Mark Kowalewski, who lives in a “committed relationship” with his male lover, was conducted at All Saints’?, Pasadena, in Borsch’s presence.

Moriarty told Borsch that this “violation of your own vows of consecration is exacerbated by the fact that only days ago the Court for the Trial of a Bishop, on which you sit as judge, rejected a challenge of your fitness for such membership, based on your assent to sub-scriptural moral standards…”? Borsch evidently has been careful not to ordain any practising homosexuals himself: a further check by ESA’s Executive Director, Fr. Samuel Edwards, turned up information that Borsch “ordained every second candidate at [the January 13] service, and that things were arranged so that it was Talton who laid hands on Kowalewski.” But Borsch is clearly a supporter, as one of some 70 bishops who signed Spong’s “Koinonia” statement endorsing ordinations of those in “faithful”? homosexual relationships. Efforts to unseat the tour bishop-judges on the Righter court who signed the statement, two of whom (at least) had also ordained active homosexuals, were unsuccessful.

Moriarty called for Borsch’s resignation from the court on the basis of his “clear prejudging of the case” and “blatant conflict of interests”

Even The Los Angeles Times weighed in on the matter, saying: “That Borsch finds himself sitting as a judge of another bishop accused of doing something that Borsch himself permits points to how fluid the issue of human sexuality has become, not only in the Episcopal Church, but in virtually every denomination.”

An up-date on the Righter trial and other information from the United States appears in our regular feature Letter from America in the current issue.