HAMPTON, Va. - Founded by English settlers fleeing the famine and disease of Jamestown in 1610, St. John's Episcopal Church in Hampton has suffered and survived just about every major conflict in American history.
The small, red-brick sanctuary surrounded by a centuries-old graveyard on West Queens Way has withstood the cannon blasts of the Revolutionary War and the fires of the Civil War.
But this past year, another kind of battle - society's warring views on homosexuality - shook the foundation of the oldest English-speaking Episcopal church in the United States.
The revelation last summer that the church's assistant pastor is gay led to months of church infighting, introspection, financial problems and demands by a few church members to expel the gay priest.
The Rev. Richard Bardusch, a 32-year-old Newport News native serving his first priestly assignment as the assistant pastor at St. John's, abruptly resigned in February, saying he wanted to prevent further divisions within the 788-member congregation. Aside from differing attitudes about gay clergy in general, church members disagreed about whether Bardusch was being deceitful when he did not disclose his homosexuality while interviewing for the job in fall 1995.
'There have been charges'
But there is another side to the story that most church members would rather focus on - that this old parish bravely faced the modern debate over homosexuality and learned something from the experience.
"As individual families in the parish, it certainly brought the subject up at our dinner tables, between friends and between different parishioners," said church member Debbie Williams.
Bardusch said that although most church members supported him, he thinks the rifts within the parish would have broadened if he did not resign.
The church's pastor, the Rev. Rodney Caulkins, stressed that most church members did not want Bardusch to leave. But some parishioners have accused their church of being bigoted, based on a minority of members who oppose the idea of gay clergy, Caulkins said.
"There have been charges that this is a bigoted parish," Caulkins said. "I feel St. John's has been open and willing to struggle with something that is an issue with a whole lot of people in society today."
Having a gay priest at St. John's has quelled many church members' fears and misperceptions about homosexuality, Caulkins said. During several church meetings, the congregation learned what the church and the Bible say about homosexuality. Many members also learned to respect each other's opinions.
"Those are some of the wonderful things that have happened because we have had a gay priest at old St. John's - the oldest English-speaking church in America, which most people think is a staid old place with cobwebs," Caulkins said. "It's quite the opposite."
Deciding on disclosure
Caulkins did not know Bardusch was gay until the bishop of the diocese brought it up during a meeting just after Bardusch was hired in January 1996. For five months, Bardusch and Caulkins prayed and grappled over whether to let the entire parish know. Eventually, they decided to avoid the risk of church members finding out secondhand.
Bardusch and Caulkins told the church vestry - a 12-member elected body that helps the pastor see to the spiritual and financial welfare of the parish.
The news spread by word of mouth to most of the congregation last summer.
Church members started pointing fingers at one another. A $60,000 budgetary shortfall was caused, in part, by a small number of parishioners who withheld their pledges because they xTC were opposed to Bardusch.
Caulkins, pastor at St. John's for 16 years, tried to prevent the strife.
Once Bardusch's homosexuality became widely known in the parish, Caulkins organized meetings in October and November to let church members voice their opinions, ask questions and learn why he did not want to fire Bardusch despite some church members' demands. Bishop Frank Vest, the top clergy member of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, was called in to speak at one of the meetings.
The meeting was emotional and at times heated. Several spoke in support of Bardusch and accused opponents of being homophobic. Others called homosexuality sinful and asked Bardusch to resign. And there were several calls for peace within the congregation. The meetings ended as they began - with prayer.
Caulkins explained at the first meeting that Bardusch's ordination and conduct "have been in accord with the church's position: He is a homosexually oriented man who is celibate and whose lifestyle is not scandalous."
Caulkins explained to parishioners that Episcopal church law states that sexual orientation is not a barrier to ordination. Several church resolutions, which reflect the prevailing thought of Episcopalians but are not binding, state that it is "not appropriate" to ordain homosexuals who are not celibate, Caulkins said. After a break for the holidays, Caulkins followed up the congregational meetings with four adult Sunday school classes in January that focused on homosexuality.
During the classes, about 70 church members took notes and sipped coffee inside St. John's quaint parish hall as Caulkins interpreted Bible passages that deal with sexuality.
Caulkins warned against narrow interpretations of Scripture, stressing that church tradition and human reason must be a part of one's understanding of the Bible. He explained the cultural context of several Bible passages that appear to condemn same-gender sex.
During the last Sunday school class that dealt with homosexuality, Caulkins stated seven of his personal beliefs. Among them are that people are born gay or straight, that sex outside of marriage is inappropriate for Christians, that being gay is not a barrier to ordination and that it is not appropriate to ordain noncelibate homosexuals.
Caulkins concluded his beliefs by saying he will keep an open mind about the issue of homosexuality.
"If I must err, it will be on the side of openness, forgiveness, understanding, acceptance and love," he said.
Many of the church members' struggles came outside the Sunday school meetings, as they reflected on their beliefs about homosexuality and found that people close to them had opposing views.
Church member Richard Hayes said he temporarily stopped attending church services so he could get away from all the rumor and gossip in the congregation and think through what was going on at St. John's.
'One very positive thing'
"One very positive thing came out of that leave of absence - I found that I missed St. John's," said Hayes, who refused to say whether he supported Bardusch. "Sometimes in life, I think, we take our spouses, our children, our work and our religion for granted."
Williams, who supports the idea of gay clergy, said she had some lively discussions with members of her extended family who disagree with her views. The 41-year-old said her children and other young people in the parish brought a fresh, nonjudgmental perspective. "I think they've educated us. I think we didn't realize how accepting our kids are," she said.
Acceptance has not come easily for everyone.
Supporters of Bardusch had their ideas about who in the parish was against gay clergy. But when approached, these church members would not talk openly about their problems with Bardusch or their views of homosexuality.
For many church members, their respect for Bardusch outweighed any prejudices they may have had. Julie Vaisvil, a church member and a youth adviser, supported Bardusch's ministry. But she admits she would have had some reservations if she had known Bardusch was gay before she started working with him.
"I probably would have had some questions," said Vaisvil, 49, who has two grown daughters. "But they would have all been character questions about what kind of message he would bring to the children. But when I found out Richard was gay, I knew him and respected him. I already knew he had an upstanding character."
Aside from acceptance, the congregation learned other lessons.
After months of dealing with controversy, many church members said they have surrendered to Christ's command to love one another despite their differences. "I know many of us prayed about these issues and came up with many different answers," said Williams, who is also the church's financial secretary. "When someone prayerfully deals with this, and comes up with a different answer, I have to respect that."
Pub Date: 4/10/97