Episcopalians Join Nationwide Mourning for Murdered Gay Student in Wyoming

Episcopal News Service. October 26, 1998 [98-2237]

Kathryn McCormick

(ENS) Matthew Shepard was laid to rest October 16 in the Episcopal church in Casper, Wyoming, where he had often served as an acolyte, but the letters, essays, sermons, vigils and protest marches in reaction to the 21-year-old gay college student's death after a horrific beating have continued.

While many people mourned, others fired angry words at the two young men and two women who have been charged in the murder. Some urged forgiveness for whoever committed the crime, which police said apparently began with a robbery but was also prompted in part by Shepard's homosexuality. He died five days after he was found lashed to a fence post in near-freezing temperatures outside Laramie, Wyoming.

Others searched for meaning in the young man's death and still others sought to change the laws or to change minds in the country's ongoing debate over homosexuality.

"There is an image that comes to mind when I reflect on Matt on the wooden cross rail fence," the Rev. Royce Brown, rector of St. Mark's, the Casper church, said at the funeral. "I replace that image with that of another man hung upon a cross. When I concentrate on that man, I can release the bitterness inside."

Nearly 1,000 people crowded inside the church or stood outside in steadily falling snow. Across the street about a dozen anti-gay protesters shouted slogans and waved signs bearing messages such as "God Hates Fags."

Among the earliest reactions to Matthew Shepard's death was that of the Rev. Bill Bacon, rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, near the hospital where Shepard was taken for treatment and where he died. Bacon was called to Shepard's bedside by the family.

Noting that Shepard had been active in the Episcopal Church and had attended Canterbury Club while at the University of Wyoming, Bacon recalled in an essay written for the Colorado Episcopalian, "Gathered around his bandaged body, we began the Litany at the Time of Death. As lights blinked and the respirator purred, I thought of the obscenity of the Lambeth Resolution on Sexuality" that condemned homosexual activity. "Especially," he said, "the bit included as an afterthought, and not unanimously, 'We wish to assure them (homosexuals) that they are loved by God and that all baptized, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ.'

"Matthew, a child of God by Baptism... a Son of the Episcopal Church. The obscenity of even thinking that a vote had to be taken to ensure that he was a full member of the church," Bacon said.

No license to hate

Reaction to the murder has drawn thousands to candlelight vigils and protests across the country. In the speeches and sermons given since the funeral, many have called for forgiveness, but many more have called for action as a response.

"Opinions about the theological status of homosexuality are distributed in a wide spectrum across our church," Bishop Paul V. Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem said in a pastoral letter, "but those who hold extreme views on either end of that spectrum agree that no human being is to be treated with disrespect, contempt, or violence.

"It is a basic principle of democracy that no human beings should live in fear for their lives; we are to live under law, not under terror. A special burden lies on the church not to let our debates about sexuality give anyone a license to kill or to hate," he said.

Many expressed their dismay that literal readings of certain biblical passages have led to a climate of rejection, and sometimes hostility, toward gay people. Others said that the problem was deeper.

"Silence killed Matthew Shepard," Bishop Steven Charleston, chaplain of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, said in a chapel sermon. "The silence of Christians who know that our scriptures on homosexuality are few and murky in interpretation and far outweighed by the words of a savior whose only comment on human relationships was to call us to never judge but only to love.

"The silence of well-meaning, educated people who pretend to have an enlightened view of homosexuality while quietly tolerating the abuse of gays and lesbians in their own communities. The silence of our elected officials who have the authority to make changes but prefer to count votes. The silence of the majority of 'straight' Americans who shift uncomfortably when confronted by the thought that gays and lesbians may be no different from themselves, save for the fact that they are walking targets for bigotry, disrespect, cheap humor, and apparently, of murder."

Shepard's murder was an example of "the irrational hatred which can fester in the human heart, twisting logic and leading to a cruelty which can only be described as evil," declared Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis.

"While scholars and theologians may disagree about the biblical texts which seem to condemn certain homosexual behaviors, there can be no dispute that both the Law of Moses and the teachings of Jesus demand mercy and justice for those who are 'other,' wayfarers, strangers and sojourners and even for members of various despised races," she added.

In San Francisco, Bishop William E. Swing urged churches in his diocese to launch a theological and biblical study aimed at producing a paper responding to a recent Lambeth Conference resolution that found homosexual practice "incompatible with Scripture."

"I have a deep conviction that Lambeth erred in its understanding of Holy Scripture and its understanding of homosexual people," he told delegates to last week's diocesan convention. "The bishop of the Diocese of California does not believe that an appeal to a few passages of Leviticus should take precedence over all (biblical) wisdom," he said.

Convention delegates authorized the creation of a task force to undertake the study and report to the next diocesan convention.

Calls for legislation

Rodney Page, speaking on behalf of the National Council of Churches, called on Congress to support new legislation on "hate crimes." President Bill Clinton earlier had urged Congress to strengthen federal law regarding such crimes.

Meanwhile, in a separate but related action, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey met in London with representatives of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, whose membership includes about 1,000 Anglicans. The October 16 meeting came as the result of a promise Carey made to the group, which had registered its anger at the Lambeth Conference vote on sexuality last summer.

An LGCM statement said the meeting had taken place in a "constructive and positive atmosphere" in which both sides discussed working cooperatively while respecting the differences remaining between them.

Pamela Chinnis, president of the Episcopal Church's House of Deputies, pointed out in a statement that four months earlier, an African-American man, James Byrd, Jr., was beaten and then killed in Jasper County, Texas, a victim of racial hatred.

"These horrifying crimes, committed under cover of darkness on lonely country roads, warn of the potential for evil that lurks in every town and city, and in our churches, too," she said. "We must take the message of these hate crimes seriously -- our faith requires it, and our survival as a civilization depends on it."

Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, in a separate statement, said he mourned the young man's death, adding, "The fact that Matthew was an Episcopalian makes our grief no more sharp, but it does give us a particular responsibility to stand with gays and lesbians, to decry all forms of violence against them -- from verbal to physical, and to encourage the dialogue that can, with God's help, lead to new appreciation for their presence in the life of our church, and the broader community."

According to news reports, Shepard was born in Casper. He attended schools in Switzerland, on the East Coast of the U.S. and in Denver. He traveled the world with his parents, who were employed by an oil company, before returning to Casper. He later attended Casper Junior College before transferring this fall to the University of Wyoming, where he studied political science.

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