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Episcopal Conservatives May Try Iowa Bishop For Heresy

Mary Otto Knight-Ridder

Conservative bishops have obtained the votes they need to put the retired bishop of Iowa on trial for heresy, Episcopal Church headquarters announced Friday.

The accused, Bishop Walter C. Righter, 71, is charged with violating church doctrine by ordaining a “practicing homosexual” as a church deacon.

The conservatives needed the consent of at least 75 of the church’s 297 bishops to call for a trial before a nine-bishop court.

“A sufficient number of consents have been received,” the denomination’s leader, Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, announced in a statement.

The exact number of consenting signatures was not released. Though in the past, Browning has opposed the move to put Righter on trial, he made no comments Friday on his feelings about the action.

One of the initial signers of the action against Righter, Bishop James M. Stanton of Dallas, applauded Friday’s announcement. “I’m encouraged there are enough bishops who seem to see this as a problem, and who are willing to go forward,” he said.

But Stanton also said Friday that conservatives might be willing to call off their demand for a trial if an agreement could be reached, whereby all bishops would consent to stop performing homosexual ordinations “until the church specifically authorized them.”

One attempt at making such an agreement has already failed, however, said church spokesman James Solheim.

Righter said Friday he would have no comment on the announcement. “I’ve not talked to the presiding bishop,” he said.

In the conservatives’ action, called a presentment, the bishops charged that Righter violated church doctrine by performing the 1990 ordination. They also say he spread false teachings by signing a 1994 statement supporting gay and lesbian ordination.

But in a rebuttal to the charges, Righter claims he did not violate church doctrine, nor his vow to uphold it when, acting as assistant bishop of the diocese of Newark, N.J., he ordained an openly gay man, Barry Stopfel, as a deacon.

If it goes to trial, the case is expected to center on canon law, as well as church doctrine and teachings by church leadership on the subject of homosexual ordination.

The charges, seen as a sign of deepening strife over Episcopal Church teachings about homosexuality, were filed against Righter shortly before the expiration of a five-year statute of limitations. And conservatives have warned they may demand other trials.

Several other bishops have also been criticized for ordaining openly homosexual people.

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