Monday, September 12, 2011

A Bishop on the Firing Line

Bishop Walter Righter died yesterday at the age of 87.  He was best known for having been accused of heresy in 1995 by ten other bishops for having knowingly ordained a non-celibate gay man, Barry Stopfel, in the Diocese of Newark where he was serving as Assistant Bishop.  Walter liked to quote former Presiding Bishop John Hines, "A bishop's job is to keep his church family on the firing line of the world's most desperate needs and to learn to accept the exquisite penalty of such an exposed position."  When his moment came, Walter stood on that line and accepted the penalty.

Walter was a kind, grandfatherly-type of man who was also tough as nails.  He had been Bishop of Iowa for many years (1972-1988) before he went to assist in Newark.  I didn't know him then, but I suspect he was a natural in that mid-western, rural setting.  There was nothing pretentious about Walter.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, visited the Diocese of Iowa in 1981, and Walter managed to convince him to pick up a piglet and pretend to give it a kiss.

Walter's trial was a watershed moment for the church. Conservatives were frustrated that they had not been able to get General Convention to stop the ordination of openly lesbian and gay people, so they decided to turn to the seldom used ecclesiastical court system.  The previous charge of heresy against a bishop had been made in 1923.  The court that convened ruled that there was no basis for a charge, that the "core doctrine" of the church was not in question, and so a trial never actually happened.  The hearing in Wilmington, Delaware in 1996 was a dramatic moment, however.  I was privileged to be present.  Interestingly enough, it was the first time I met Bishop Jack McKelvey, then the new Bishop Suffragan of Newark, and Walter's chaplain for the trial.

To me, Walter was the epitome of the change that occurred in the Episcopal Church in the 1980's and 1990's. He was no trained theologian or biblical scholar (which is not to say he wasn't a very smart and shrewd man).  He was no new-fangled, elitist liberal who was trying to make over the church into his own image.  He was just an honest, everyday Christian and Episcopalian, who loved serving Jesus.  And in that service he learned that inclusion trumps exclusion every time.  He knew love and faith and hope when he saw it, and could not deny it based on a couple verses of scripture.

I loved Walter Righter and I am proud that John and I counted him and his faithful wife Nancy as friends.  Rest in peace and rise in glory, Walter. Enjoy the feast at the welcome table.

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