The LGBT and faith communities are both mourning the loss of a staunch supporter among faith leaders. Bishop Walter Righter died this past Sunday at his home outside Pittsburgh. He was 87 years old.
Bishop Righter served as a bishop in Iowa and New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. It was during his time in New Jersey that he made what would become a groundbreaking decision to ordain Barry Stopfel, an openly gay man, as a deacon in the Episcopal Church. Bishop Righter’s decision to ordain Stopfel outraged conservative members of the church, who, in 1995, charged him with heresy. In 1996, a panel of eight bishops dismissed the heresy charges in a 7-1 vote. Their conclusion, that “there was no church doctrine forbidding the ordination of gays and lesbians who are in a committed relationship,” paved the way for further inclusion of LGBT people in the Episcopal Church and something even more unusual: an apology. In 1997, the church’s General Convention issued an apology for the years of rejection and mistreatment experienced by LGBT Episcopalians.
“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.”
Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the current Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, agrees. In a statement, she says:
"[Bishop Righter was] 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."
In 1998, Bishop Righter published A Pilgrim’s Way about his experience before and during the trial and how he came to understand the fear underlying the heresy accusations leveled against him. Bishop Righter’s leadership allowed the Episcopal Church to become the first Mainline Protestant denomination to move toward the full inclusion of LGBT people. As a supporter of LGBT Episcopalians, he will be greatly missed, but the changes he helped make in his church will remain a testament to his sense of justice and to his integrity as a human being.