Bishop faces heresy trial over gay deacon


New York

In a controversy that is agitating the American Episcopal Church and drawing the attention of Protestants worldwide, church leaders are agonising over whether a bishop who ordained a gay man as a deacon should be tried as a heretic.

A panel of nine Episcopal bishops is expected to rule, over the next few days, whether the retired Bishop of Iowa, Walter Righter, was acting as a heretic when he ordained the Reverend Barry Stopfel, an avowed homosexual, six years ago as a deacon in the diocese of Newark.

A preliminary hearing into whether such a trial is appropriate was held in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday, with 200 of the church hierarchy present. A formal accusation of heresy has been laid against Bishop Righter, signed by a quarter of the church's 300 bishops would form the basis of a trial.

In the American west, meanwhile, the school system in Utah is in turmoil after the State Board of Education responded to the creation by students in a Salt Lake City high school of a Gay/Straight students alliance by outlawing all clubs in the state's public schools; not only congregations of gay students but also clubs involved in sports, debating or stamp collecting. The board's ruling has spurred widespread student protests in the largely Mormon state.

Bishop Righter is the first person in 72 years to be tried by the Episcopalian Church as a heretic. The premise of the charge would be a 1979 resolution passed by the church's bishops that ruled the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals as "not appropriate".

Supporters of the bishop insist that the resolution has never had any legal status in church law. Some other bishops within the church have continued discreetly to ordain gay men and lesbians. If found guilty and branded as a heretic, the bishop could be deposed.

Asked how he would feel, he responded: "It wouldn't change my faith in God. I ordained a qualified man, one of the most qualified I'd seen in the Episcopal Church."

At the time of the disputed ordination, Bishop Wrighter was an assistant for the Newark Bishop, John Spong, who has long been an advocate of ordaining homosexuals.

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