Remembering Walter Righter, Episcopal Bishop and Shepherd

Bishop Righter and wife Nancy Righter

When theologian William Stringfellow and Anthony Townes wrote about The Bishop Pike Affair in the 1967, they dug deep into the decision by the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops to resurrect heresy laws to address behavior by Pike that was either outlandish and heretical or prophetic and revelatory, depending on your point of view. In the person of Pike, an early proponent of ordination of women, racial desegregation, and the acceptance of LBGT people within mainline churches, his actions were a messy human mix of both and all.

Though Pike lost the trial, the Pike Affair raised in stark relief the fact that, on occasion, mature religious conscience could come into conflict with religious orthodoxy. It was a highly significant revelation in American religious thought.

This week American Christians lay to rest another brother who lived and died in that same stream: Walter Righter, the Episcopal bishop who ordained the first woman in the Iowa diocese in 1976 and ordained an openly gay partnered man to the diaconate in 1990, after “changing his mind” on ordaining “homosexuals,” died at home in Pittsburgh and was interred in Calvary Church’s columbarium.

Bishop Righter was also brought up on charges that by ordaining a gay man he violated the doctrine of the church and Righter’s own ordination vows. But this time the battle was won. In May 1996, the Bishops Court stated in a 7-1 decision that the Episcopal Church “has no doctrine prohibiting the ordination of homosexuals,” and that Bishop Righter did not contradict the “core doctrine” of the church. Righter reflected on the trial and his life in his book A Pilgrim’s Way. Well done, good and faithful servant.

The Rt. Rev. Walter C. Righter, an Episcopal bishop whose victory at a 1996 heresy trial played a key role in the push for gay rights in the church, died on Sunday (Sept. 11) at the age of 87.

“I look around the Episcopal Church today where there are no impediments to the ordination of gay or lesbian members … none of that would have happened without Bishop Righter’s leadership,” said the Rev. Susan Russell of All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., former president of the pro-gay group Integrity USA. Righter was bishop of Iowa from 1972 to 1988, during which time he ordained the first female deacon in Iowa. From 1989 to 1991, he served as assistant bishop in the Diocese of Newark.

Righter ordained Barry Lee Stopfel, a noncelibate gay man, as a deacon in 1990. Ten bishops brought charges against Righter, alleging that he violated both the doctrine of the church and his ordination vows by ordaining Stopfel. In a verdict issued on May 15, 1996, a church court stated that the Episcopal Church “has no doctrine prohibiting the ordination of homosexuals,” and that Bishop Righter did not contradict any “core doctrine” of the church.

A member of the court, Bishop Cabell Tennis, told The New York Times that the verdict offered neither an opinion “on the morality of same-gender relationships” nor guidance on whether a bishop “should or should not” ordain sexually active gays and lesbians. When asked after the trial to speculate on the future of homosexuality in the church, Righter told The Times, “I think we’re making too much out of the bedroom.”

The Episcopal Church now has two openly gay bishops and allows for the ordination of gays and lesbians in most dioceses, and will likely debate formalized rites for same-sex unions at its General Convention next year. “When the history of the movement for the full inclusion of the LGBT community in our church is written, there is no doubt that Walter Righter will be one of its great heroes,” said Russell.

In a statement Monday on Righter’s death, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said: “The Episcopal Church can give thanks for the life of a faithful and prophetic servant…. His ministry will be remembered for his pastoral heart and his steadfast willingness to help the church move beyond old prejudices into new possibilities.”