“Feature: The concerns voiced by Prof Stephen Noll in his 1996 response to the trial of Walter Righter bear re-reading today.”
The Aftermath of the Righter Trial (1996)
On 15 May 1996, the trial Court delivered its Opinion, dismissing both counts: that Bishop Righter had taught false doctrine and had violated his ordination oath. The vote was 7 to 1, one judge having recused himself from the case.
The seven majority judges, inspired by C. H. Dodd’s Apostolic Preaching, made a distinction between what they called “Core Doctrine” (kerygma) and “traditional teaching” (didache). Despite the fact that the Canon stated that a bishop might be tried for holding and teaching “any doctrine contrary to that held by this Church,” they concluded that only Core Doctrine could be grounds for a heresy trial. In fact, Core Doctrine as they spelled it out, is so vague that no one will ever be convicted. And surely, that was their point: no more trials!
The Core Doctrine distinction involves a category error. Dodd was describing basic elements of the evangelistic preaching of the Church, not its internal rule of faith and life. The Court majority was a bit uneasy that their Core Doctrine contained no moral norms at all, and so they conceded that a bishop might conceivably be disciplined for teaching or practicing immorality such as adultery, theft, and assault; but the conclusion for such a norm would be that it had never been contested within the Church as homosexuality has. Since Bishop Spong had already contested every known doctrine of the faith, he can presumably breathe a sigh of relief!
The majority claimed to be agnostic on the morality of homosexuality and called for a period of “patient listening and holy discernment.” During such a holy hiatus, of course, a sizeable group of Episcopal bishops will continue to ordain non-celibate homosexuals and push the next agenda item, gay marriage..