A Quill Pen

A Pilgrim's Way

by Walter C. Righter

1 November 2004 book review
by Collie Collier

I love books -- almost as much as I love clear and rational communication with intelligent, fun people. Books allow someone far away, whom I might never meet, to speak to me. Admittedly, sometimes I'm not that interested in hearing someone else's thoughts when they're poorly researched or presented, but sometimes I stumble across a book which is a lovely chance to vicariously experience someone else's fascinating life -- both their tribulations and their triumphs.

Righter's story is one of these. I was really pleased to find this book, as in the commercial scheme of things, I doubt it would rank very highly in any best seller list. Nevertheless, it was quite inspiring to read this story of a perhaps commercially or globally small, but religiously significant incident.

What went before

A bit of background: the Episcopalian church has long had gay priests and perhaps even bishops. However, as with the Catholic church, there's been a policy of turning an officially blind eye to this as long as the person in question was publicly deceptive concerning their sexual orientation.

Also pivotal within the Episcopal church is a now-retired bishop named John Shelby Spong, who was then the Bishop of Newark. This incredibly courageous, religiously devout man has apparently dedicated his religious life to encouraging the church to shed teachings which are deceptive or belittling to intelligent and/or disempowered members of today's society. As retired bishop Righter put it,

The Bishop of Newark [Spong] takes seriously the necessity to speak to, and sometimes on behalf of, the disenchanted, the scientifically minded, the thoughtful maverick in our society who has walked out on the church.

and more poignantly, concerning Bishop Spong's teachings,

I began to feel in more urgent and profound ways the dilemma of homosexual people in the church. Here were people who had been faithful to the church's purpose all of their lives. Here were people faithful to their partners for years. Here were people who looked to the church to provide moral leadership....

And yet the church was resisting, just as she and some of her leaders resisted equality for women, equal opportunity for the poor, and civil rights. I began to see the links among homophobia, misogyny, racism, and classism -- all efforts to reduce the inherent worth of another human being.

Unsurprisingly, this has made Spong a lightning rod for the fears of more fundamentalist or rigidly orthodox members of his church. However, despite far too much vicious hate mail, he has strongly continued in this quest, and been recognized as a truly talented individual in his ability to perceptively note the religious and logical failings of his adversaries.

Planning the attack

There is a military truism which says: Divide and conquer. When your opponents have a charismatic, brilliant leader whom everyone is happy to gather with and support, it makes little sense to directly attack that leader -- you'll lose and look bad doing it. Attacking someone of apparently smaller stature, however, is a much safer way to whittle away at your opponents' position.

This was the situation for the Richter heresy case. Spong's opponents knew quite well then-Bishop Spong was too strong and resolute a target for their attack. As Righter notes,

One of the media people even suggested to Nancy [Righter] my ten accusers picked on me on purpose in order to deny Jack Spong the public forum he would have if they had accused him. He is articulate and can be devastating to his opponents. He is perhaps the brightest of all the bishops. His immediate response, if he had been accused, would have been withering.

The fundamentalist faction also knew several gay priests had already been ordained by other bishops. However, perhaps a retired bishop who had worked closely with Spong, and ordained a gay priest as well, would be a "soft" enough target to start chipping away at the apparently unassailable strength of Spong's religious position. Righter quotes Arno Borst from his book Medieval Worlds,

Heresies in the Middle Ages "formed and spread because the Catholic Church would listen to new religious demands only hesitantly, or within the community of clerics. Under these conditions, heresies became the active, radically progressive wing of a religious movement that would usually enter into the church at some later point anyway."

How very Jesus-like. Then again, he also was accused of heresy for trying to uplift the disenfranchised, wasn't he? Thank goodness we're believers in a religion of love and forgiveness, or Righter might have been in real trouble... ;)

The research on heresy, poignantly enough, was done by Righter's indignant brother, who was not even still an active church-goer. He found another fascinating quote from Karen Armstrong, who noted in a New York Times article written in response to the convening of the Court for the Trial of a Bishop, "History shows that heresy trials are largely fueled by a church's anxiety over challenges to its authority and social change."

Ordaining a gay priest, no matter how supremely qualified (which this one was), is definitely a challenge to the social and ecclesiastical norms, at least in the eyes of those already anxious about perceived personal authority and social change. Quite simply, heresy trials are more about secular power than sacred doctrine, and this was amply demonstrated in this case as well.

Fundamentalist tactics

For example, the fundamentalist faction is reported as being quite willing to "compromise" so as to not have a trial. However, their definition of "compromise" was to demand everyone adhere to their desires -- no gay priests, and no questioning of this dogma.

Furthermore, even though the trial was purportedly about theoretical heresy, Righter's accusers repeatedly tried to drag in outside issues. Imperfectly defined, emotionally laden phrases such as "family values," "doctrinal authority," and "order and discipline" were bandied about in an effort to improperly broaden and confuse the scope of the trial from its theoretical origins as a simple exploration of doctrine.

Reflection on this demonstrates clearly the charges of heresy were never the true point of the case against retired bishop Righter. This was an issue of secular power -- the power to chart the future course of the church and religious doctrine, as Righter writes:

The Episcopal Church had become a heated microcosm of the battle over the changing roles of men and women, over the need to understand sexuality more clearly, over the clash between the past and the future. ...

Underneath all the argument was the same set of basic questions over the changing roles of men and women and a whole set of arguments about authority. In addition, there was still a covert presumption that women were someone else's property instead of full human beings. And another presumption was still alive -- that homosexuality was sin.

Fortunately, Bishop Righter was not the simple 'lamb to slaughter' they'd expected or hoped for. It's a pleasure to see him turning something so negative into a positive learning experience. As he notes, it is always easier to conform and not rock the boat, than to stand up for unpopular beliefs which are right.

But sometimes you simply have to stand for something, rather that permitting anything as long as it doesn't make anyone unhappy. To refuse to grow is stagnation and death; it is the nature of growth to be uncomfortable, and a true leader will help others realize and bear with that -- and grow into strength and maturity.

From tragedy, triumph

This is a slim volume, and most of it is dedicated to telling as accurately as possible the occurrences around retired Bishop Righter's trial for heresy, in which he was cleared of all charges. However, there are numerous gems of inspiration within the book, both from Righter and people he quotes, and I'd like to close with two of them which I found particularly perceptive. Perhaps they will inspire others to seek out and read this short but intriguing book. Righter states:

Fundamentalism as a threat is, of course, not confined to the House of Bishops or to the Episcopal Church. ... It espouses a simplicity, appealing but dangerous, in that it reduces complex, multilayered issues to one-dimensional response.

and later he quotes from retiring Presiding Bishop Browning's farewell address:

History tells us that biblical literalism was used to support both the practice of slavery and the denigration of women. We have moved past slavery and we are moving past the oppression of women. It is time to move past using literalistic readings of the Bible to create prejudices against our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.

Pilgrims lead the way, often through dangerous and unknown terrain, to powerful, honest, new interpretations of meaning in life. It takes courage and determination to be a pilgrim, as they are often excoriated by those who do not wish to leave the safe ruts of their quotidian lives. Without pilgrims, however, we would be an emotionally shabbier, intellectually poorer people.

In this case the role of pilgrim was thrust unexpectedly upon Righter, while his journey's end was an inspiring reiteration of the common humanity we all share regardless of gender, skin color, or sexual preference.

I am a relaxed agnostic, but if there is a deity, thank goodness for kind, thoughtful, strong leaders like Righter and Spong -- they inspire us to greatness, even if what we most need is a good, swift kick in the pants.

Reader Comments

08.15.04: Kelly's thoughts

Oooh, I'm going to have to see if I can find that one at the library! Looks excellent. Loved your line... "Thank goodness we're believers in a religion of love and forgiveness, or Righter might have been in real trouble... ;)" Well, ok, in MY religion the love and forgiveness thing is true, but not so much in most of the Christian sects.