Obituary: Bishop Walter Righter / His 'pastoral heart' moved Episcopal Church beyond old prejudices
Bishop Walter Righter, whose 1990 ordination of a gay deacon opened the Episcopal Church to partnered gay clergy after a church court dismissed heresy charges against him, died Sunday at his home in Export. The retired bishop of Iowa, who was first ordained in Pittsburgh, was 87.
"Bishop Righter is one of the giants on whose shoulders gay and lesbian Christians stand," said Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, who in 2003 became the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. "Long before it became popular, Walter became a straight ally of the gay Christian community, putting his life and ecclesiastical career on the line for us."
"The Episcopal Church can give thanks for the life of a faithful and prophetic servant," said Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. "His ministry will be remembered for his pastoral heart and his steadfast willingness to help the church move beyond old prejudices into new possibilities."
The heresy charge stemmed from his early retirement, when he became an assisting bishop to the firebrand liberal Bishop John Spong of Newark, N.J. Until then, Bishop Righter had been known as an unassuming centrist. But the conservative attempt to declare him a heretic ricocheted, and many conservatives ultimately left the Episcopal Church.
"Walter just happened to be the person in history who was there at an event when suddenly a lot of things came together and the lines were drawn," said the Rev. George Werner of Sewickley, dean emeritus of Trinity Cathedral, Downtown, and a friend for more than 40 years. "In some senses, he was a martyr. He was still scarred."
He moved from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh in his youth, graduating from Sewickley High School in 1941. His wartime experience in the Battle of the Bulge led him to pursue ministry. He returned to the University of Pittsburgh to prepare for seminary.
While he was at Pitt, Bishop Austin Pardue assigned him to run a Sunday School at St. Stephen's, Sewickley, and to plant a congregation in Ligonier that eventually became St. Michael of the Valley. On bishop's orders, he spent breaks from Yale's Berkeley Divinity School working in a Homestead steel mill so he could understand the lives of ordinary Pittsburghers.
Ordained in 1951, he was sent to All Saints in Aliquippa, where he led the racial integration of the parish. The congregation doubled. In 1954, he was called to be rector of Church of the Good Shepherd in Nashua, N.H., where he was active in interfaith and ecumenical work. He became a mentor to young Rev. Werner, then serving in Manchester, N.H.
"He was the quintessential parish priest," Rev. Werner said. "He wasn't high church or low church or evangelical or activist. He was the old-fashioned pastor who takes care of his parish but was also an active player in the community."
When he was elected bishop of the Diocese of Iowa in 1972, he refused the offer of a chauffeur and drove his vast territory, Rev. Werner said. He was active at the national level of the church, where he was best known for promoting evangelism.
"I felt that we were comrades in arms," said retired Episcopal Bishop William Frey, a former rector of Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge and a leading theological conservative. "The sexuality debate found us on opposite sides. But he is a gracious man, not one of the people who engaged in name-calling. He had respect for people on all sides of the issues."
He once held traditional views on sexual orientation. As a new bishop he wrote of homosexuality as an illness that could be cured. In 1979, he voted for the national church resolution against gay ordination. But he began to rethink the issue. After he retired in 1988, he went to Newark to assist Bishop Spong. In 1990, at Bishop Spong's behest, he ordained a partnered gay man. Five years later 10 of his fellow bishops filed heresy charges.
Bishop Frey was not among them. Although he believed Bishop Righter was wrong and would eventually vote to allow a trial, "they brought the wrong charges and it blew up in their faces," he said.
The ruling, Bishop Frey said, created more serious theological problems for conservatives than those related to sexuality. When it said that gay ordination didn't violate core doctrine, the definition of core doctrine was based on modern theology rather than ancient creeds, he said. All of that created an opening that grew into a denominational split.
But for the Rev. Susan Russell of Pasadena, Calif., a past president of the Episcopal gay advocacy group Integrity, Bishop Righter was like the biblical patriarch Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers but was consequently able to save them from starvation.
"There is a verse where Joseph says, 'You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,' " she said. "What Bishop Righter did absolutely opened the way not just for gay and lesbian people to exercise more fully their ministry in the Episcopal Church, but for the Episcopal Church to become an opinion leader among mainline denominations."
There was a literal price to be paid for his canonical defense. "Walter never fully recovered financially," Rev. Werner said.
About eight years ago he settled in Export with his wife. The Pittsburgh diocese had become one of the most conservative in the country and would split in 2008. He joined Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside. When the Rev. Harold Lewis, rector of Calvary, invited him to celebrate weekday Eucharist and listed him among the parish clergy, Bishop Robert Duncan objected.
"That was a grievous blow to Walter," Rev. Lewis said.
Shortly after the diocesan split, Bishop Righter wrote to the Rev. James Simons of St. Michael of the Valley, then the ecclesiastical authority in charge of reorganizing the Episcopal dioceses.
"He asked for canonical residency and we granted it immediately. I sent him an email saying, 'Welcome home.' He was very appreciative," Rev. Simons said.
Failing health kept him from priestly duties. But he kept up a lively email correspondence with friends near and far. In July he began hospice care.
"He said the doctors told him to expect to live until October at the latest. He was very up front and straightforward about it, not at all fearful," Rev. Lewis said. "In dying, he taught us how to live. He was accepting of it. He was rejoicing in what he managed to do. He fought the good fight, as St. Paul said, and he was ready to go on to the next stage."
He is survived by his wife, Nancy; a brother, Richard of Murrysville; a son Richard of Keene, N.H.; a daughter, Becky Richardson of Des Moines, Iowa; a stepson, David DeGroot of Milford, Mass.; a stepdaughter, Kathy Gallogly of Oceanside, N.Y.; and four grandchildren.
The funeral will be Thursday at 11 a.m. in Calvary Episcopal Church, Shadyside, with interment in the parish columbarium.
First Published September 13, 2011 7:23 am