Tag Archives: Episcopal (Anglican)

Cast of Characters: Gene Robinson

Gene Robinson portraitIf readers of this blog series of biographical snippets of the iconic pilgrims who led the journey toward full inclusion know only one name, it would undoubtedly be Bishop Gene Robinson, consecrated as the bishop of the New Hampshire Episcopal Diocese in 2003. For this brief taste of the Gene Robinson story, we will sample the spicy few days in Minneapolis when bishop-elect Robinson’s fate was on the plate-then off-then on again.

As with several other significant waypoints along the journey, the 2003 General Convention that approved his election occurred on the banks of the Mississippi River in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes. It was in Minnesota that the Episcopalians convened in 1976 and revised canon law to allow women to be ordained to all levels of ministry; it was here that Christian feminists gathered for a Re-Imaging Conference in 1993 that rattled the mainline denominations; it was here that the Lutherans convened for their 2009 Church Wide Assembly and revised ministry policies to allow partnered gays and lesbians to be ordained; and it was here that the Presbyterians voted in General Assembly 2010 to do the same. There were numerous lesser signposts staked in Minnesota as well, and this was the homeland of more than a few pilgrims encountered in the book. There must be something in the Minnesota water.

Episcopalians elect their own bishops in diocesan conventions. However, the elections must be ratified by the national church, which is usually nothing more than a rubber-stamp approval. Because the New Hampshire Diocese elected Gene Robinson just a short time before the scheduled triennial General Convention, it would be the bishops and deputies who would gather in Minneapolis in the summer of 2003 who would have the last word. July in Minnesota is splendid, and the freezing blizzards of January are merely a test of character for the thousands of Minnesotans whose reward is to wet a fish line or take a dip in the sky-blue waters of midsummer. Yah, sure, you betcha.

Gene Robinson was a candidate running for office with a well-oiled campaign. His supporters roamed the hallways sporting buttons that said “Ask Me About Gene.” Robinson himself wore one that said, “I AM Gene” as he chatted and greeted all comers with a friendly grin and firm handshake. Partner Mark followed closely, appearing a bit self-conscious, and a burly security man with a crew cut kept a close watch.

A standing-room only audience followed Robinson’s speech before a committee considering the consecration of bishops. Many more clustered around the closed-circuit TV monitors in adjacent rooms. Part of Robinson’s task, now and continuing throughout the convention, would be a rebuttal of lies put out by his adversaries. He had not abandoned his wife and children, and they said so in highly supportive terms (his relationship with Mark Andrews began a couple of years after the divorce). Robinson’s twenty-one year old daughter appeared in person and read aloud a statement prepared by her mother, which demonstrated her continuing high regard for the man who had once been her husband.

Our lives together both married and divorced have been examples of how to deal with difficult decisions with grace, love, integrity, and honour. He is worthy of your affirmation. His charisma will draw in many more people to the church than will leave due to his sexuality. He will be a truly great bishop.

The House of Deputies voted first, and Robinson was easily approved by roughly a two to one majority.

Before the House of Bishops’ vote the following day, which was likely to be dicey anyway, the scent of scandal wafted out of the opponent’s headquarters with an allegation that placed Robinson’s ordination in serious jeopardy. A different allegation that arrived by email had to be dealt with first.

The first allegation developed from an email sent by a TV viewer back in New England who had been watching a news report of the proceedings. A man claimed he had been touched inappropriately by Bishop-elect Robinson at a regional church gathering years earlier. Even the normally reliable Episcopal News Service was swept up in the emotion of the moment, falsely reporting that “a Vermont man sent an e-mail to bishops accusing Robinson of fondling him” (emphasis added). The unfortunate word choice was a sensationalist misstatement–the email made no such claim, and the man quickly backed off when he was contacted by the bishop assigned to investigate. The alleged “touching” of years earlier turned out to be entirely innocuous. In a crowded conference room, Robinson had passed the man and stopped briefly to exchange a greeting. In doing so, Robinson had grasped the man’s upper arm and patted him on the back.

Shocking. Objection overruled.

The second allegation was even more titillating. Robinson was connected to pornographic websites, according to a “portly, red-faced pseudo journalist addicted to conspiracy theories and running his own raucously partisan conservative website.” During his fifteen minutes of fame, the man strutted around the convention media center, gleefully sputtering, “I have found the smoking gun. We got him!” The accuser’s last name was Virtue. You can’t make this stuff up.

Mr. David Virtue was part of the gatekeeping organization, the American Anglican Council (AAC). It had been the AAC chairman who first alerted church authorities to the allegations of Mr. Virtue. ”I think the bishops in considering his worthiness would want to weigh that,” the chairman said as he bounced around the convention press center, hoping that substance would back up the flimsy allegation, even while sanctimoniously claiming otherwise.

Supporters were stunned. Bishop Samuel G. Candler of the Diocese of Atlanta had spoken passionately on behalf of Rev. Robinson, but he admitted that he was shaken by the allegation.

Detractors smugly asserted, “we told you so.” Rev. Donald Armstrong of Colorado Springs, an opponent of Robinson, claimed that the allegation about pornography was entirely predictable because of Robinson’s disordered sexuality, and he suggested that Robinson ought to withdraw his candidacy.

The investigation into the pornographic website complaint revealed no connection to Robinson whatsoever. It was a “six degrees of separation” claim run amok. The questionable link had been placed on an organization’s website long after Robinson was no longer involved with the organization. The guilt-by-association smear tactic of unvirtuous Mr. Virtue failed. The investigator reported to his fellow bishops that there was ”no necessity to pursue” either complaint further. Objection overruled.

Gene Robinson consecrationWhen the Bishops finally conducted their own vote a day late, Robinson’s ordination to the episcopate was approved by nearly sixty per cent. Perhaps a vote or two swung in favor of Bishop-elect Robinson due to the underhanded tactics of the gatekeepers. Robinson was consecrated as New Hampshire bishop later that fall, but that festive event is another story.

The book is now available!

Print copies are available from Amazonthe publisherBarnes and NobleCokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook. For iPad or other Apple users, you may order through the iTunes bookstore. Search on RW Holmen.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

1996 Walter Righter (Episcopal Bishop whose heresy trial opened the door for queer clergy)

2000 Jimmy Creech, Greg Dell, Joseph Sprague, and Jack Tuell (Methodist trials to punish clergy who performed covenant services for same-gender couples)

2001 Anita Hill (extraordinarily ordained Lutheran)

Cast of Characters: Walter Righter

Rt. Rev. Walter Righter had ably served as bishop of the Iowa Episcopal Diocese for sixteen years, and in 1988 at age 65 he had earned voluntary retirement. Little did the combat veteran of the WWII Battle of the Bulge know that his most significant contribution in conflict would come a decade later.

First came the call from the bishop of the Diocese of Newark, Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. Righter was persuaded to join the diocese in 1989 as Spong’s lieutenant, his assistant bishop, but only for a few more years. Spong’s reputation as an outspoken progressive didn’t scare him off; he was moving in that direction himself. At the General Convention of 1979, the “height of homophobia” according to Dr. Louie Crew of Integrity, Bishop Righter had voted with the majority in the House of Bishops in rejecting an LGBT-friendly task force recommendation and resolving, “it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual.” At that time, he was certainly not with the bishops who filed a “Statement of Conscience” in dissent. However, a decade later, he was willing to stand with Spong who lit a fire in the Episcopal Church by publicly ordaining an openly gay man just before Christmas in 1989. Bishop Spong had to take care not to trip over the TV cables for the broadcast of the ordination ceremony, which was looped as lead story on CNN every half hour.

As Spong dodged barbs and arrows during 1990, another gay man requested ordination. Better to let Walter do it, in a quiet, private ceremony, Spong and Righter decided. Late in the year, assistant Bishop Righter ordained Barry Stopfel, a partnered gay man, to the diaconate, a non-sacerdotal role that was often a steppingstone to ordination as a priest. Indeed, the following year, Bishop Spong himself ordained Stopfel to the priesthood. About that time, Bishop Righter retired for good.

Four years later in 1995, Episcopal gatekeepers feared that the walls were about to be breached; it was time for a last stand, much like the Germans’ counterattack against the onslaught of the allies in what history has labeled the Battle of the Bulge. With unintended irony, their target would be a survivor of the original Battle of the Bulge. For only the second time in the entire history of the Episcopal Church in America, an Episcopal bishop would be charged with heresy, and Bishop Walter Righter would be the accused, based upon his 1990 ordination of Barry Stopfel.

Why the assistant and not the ringleader? Perhaps for reasons of the statute of limitations. The gatekeepers planned to go after Spong after first dispatching his lieutenant.

“This is ridiculous … It is harassment … not of me, but of the church,” Bishop Richter said when informed of the presentment against him, a formal charge of heresy filed by ten fellow bishops.

On May 18th, 1995 Bishop Righter’s counsel filed his answer, and his supporting brief framed the issue in the broadest possible terms: that the core doctrines of the church did not preclude LGBT ordination. If the conservatives wanted a test case to determine once and for all whether the church could or would ordain LGBT candidates, Bishop Righter and his allies would welcome a frontal attack.

Much like its civil counterpart, the ecclesiastical trial would involve precise, formal procedures. Much like the chronology of a civil trial, the heresy proceedings against Bishop Righter would be drawn out. More than a year would elapse after the filing of charges and still Bishop Righter had not had his day in court.

On February 27, 1996, the latest in a series of pre-trial hearings took place at the Wilmington Cathedral of Hartford, Connecticut. At issue was the central defense argument that mere resolutions, such as the 1979 resolution, were not equivalent to the core doctrines of the church. Local and national press swarmed about the Cathedral, but when the parties and the judges began to meander through the thicket of Episcopal canon law, the mood turned quiet and solemn, with occasional snatches of humor, as often is the case in the verbal jousting of skilled lawyers.

Sitting in the overflow crowd, Barry Stopfel and Will Leckie, partners for eleven years, watched with greater interest than the others. It was Stopfel’s ordination nearly six years earlier and his relationship with Leckie that had triggered the charges against Bishop Righter. Stopfel willingly addressed the press, noting that he and Leckie had decided to sacrifice privacy in order to put their faces on the case, to remove it from abstraction to the personal:

At first I was hesitant to make myself… so visible. But more and more I thought: I want to put a face on this abstract concept. So Will and I just decided the price we were going to pay was to do that.

As in a civil trial, the court adjourned and took the matter under advisement. Both sides were to present further written argument, and a decision was not expected soon.

Nearly three months later, on May 16, 1996, the court announced its decision based upon a 7-1 vote of the sitting judges. Bishop Cabell Tennis of Delaware, a lawyer and member of the court, read a summary of the decision to a breathless crowd. Behind him, a stained glass depiction of the last supper seemed to suggest that Jesus was looking over his shoulder. When Bishop Tennis read that there was “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 crowd exhaled. The case was over and ordination of LGBT candidates had been countenanced by the highest Episcopal court; unless and until a General Convention would adopt canon law to the contrary, the law of the Episcopal landscape was now settled.

Dr. Louie Crew, who had been on the frontlines from the beginning, had the last word:

After twenty years of struggle, with many tears and prayers, a great moral victory had been won.

Assistant Bishop Walter Righter, drafted into the fray, had his moment in history.

The book is now available!

Well, sort of. It is in and out of availability on Amazon, but it is available directly from the publisherBarnes and NobleCokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook and other epub format devices.

This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer ClergyAs with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)

1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)

1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)

 

Cast of Characters Countdown: John Shelby Spong

In 1976, the Episcopal Church revised its canons to allow women to be ordained as priests. That same year, the Episcopal Diocese of Newark consecrated Rev. John Shelby Spong to be its bishop. For the next twenty-five years, Bishop Spong would be an outspoken leader of the progressive wing of the Episcopal Church, especially regarding LGBT issues.

Bishop Spong’s advocacy as a straight ally came to the fore in the late 1980s when he penned the progressive view in a running dialogue in the official Episcopal magazine, The Episcopalian. A gay man from Texas responded to the series by challenging the bishop to ordain him. Although there had been previous gay ordinations by sympathetic bishops, this one would prove different. Never a shrinking violet, Bishop Spong encouraged press scrutiny, and he carefully stepped over television camera cables during the December, 1989 ordination. CNN looped the story as its lead every half hour.

The following year was marked by reaction and fallout. “The seeds of anarchy are sown,” charged eight bishops in the Midwest. An “open and deliberate violation … a blatant disregard of the teaching of the Church Catholic,” cried a Texas bishop. A Florida bishop accused Spong of “an act of arrogance,” and the bishop of Northern Indiana suggested Bishop Spong was motivated by “publicity and little else.” At their fall meeting, the House of Bishops voted to disassociate from the ordination, but the four vote margin proved to be much closer than the conservatives expected. Following the vote, Bishop Spong blistered his opponents in a speech to the House of Bishops that he characterized as “forty-five minutes of what surely must be described as passionate purple oratory.” Late that night, two of his fellow bishops separately appeared at his hotel room door to confess that they were closeted gay men, one of whom had actually voted against Bishop Spong. “I am so afraid,” he said, “that I will be exposed. I cover that fear by being negative and harsh on this issue on every public occasion.”

At the 1994 General Convention, conservatives succeeded in watering down a document called the “Pastoral,” and Bishop Spong encountered the tearful leaders of Integrity (including Dr. Louie Crew) in the hallway outside his hotel room. Bishop Spong spent the night penning a response in longhand on a legal notepad. As dawn creeped through his hotel window, he awakened his wife and asked her to go the hotel business center to type up the document, which he called a “Statement of Koinonia.” At the plenary session of the House of Bishops the following day, Bishop Spong asked to raise a point of personal privilege. When the presiding officer recognized him, he strode past the floor microphones and proceeded to the main microphone at the platform, and he began to read the document as his wife and others distributed copies to the floor and to the press and visitors. After a few minutes, the presiding officer attempted to cut him off, but Bishop Spong held up his hand like a traffic cop and continued reading. When he finished, Bishop Mary Adelia McLeod of Vermont stepped forward saying she wanted to sign the document. Other bishops did the same disrupting the business of the day. Eventually eighty-five bishops signed the document, representing the largest dioceses in the nation and the greatest number of church members.

There is so much more to be told, and my book, Queer Clergy, does precisely that. Bishop Spong has written one of the endorsements that appears on the book’s back cover, and he states, “It is a story that had to be written … Obie Holmen tells this story in a gripping and fascinating way.”

This is the fifteenth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown. I will continue to post biographical notes about the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in my soon-to-be-released book, Queer Clergy.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)