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Retired Iowa Bishop Walter Righter dies

[Episcopal News Service] Retired Diocese of Iowa Bishop Walter C. Righter, 87, died Sept. 11 after a long period of illness. He had lived just outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

"The Episcopal Church can give thanks for the life of a faithful and prophetic servant.  He proclaimed the gospel for more than 60 years in this church, through trials and great joys," Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said Sept. 12. "His ministry will be remembered for his pastoral heart and his steadfast willingness to help the church move beyond old prejudices into new possibilities. He embodied the one of whom it is said, 'well done, good and faithful servant.'

"May Walter rest in peace and rise in glory, and may all who mourn be comforted."

He will be remembered at a service Sept. 15 at 11 a.m. at Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh diocese said in a press release that "we can uniquely recall his time of youthful service, as well as years of reserved retirement, in southwestern Pennsylvania."

Entering the ministry from St. Stephen's Church in Sewickley, he was sent to Ligonier to help organize what would later become the parish church of St. Michael's of the Valley, the diocese said. After ordination, Righter led congregations in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, for a while simultaneously serving the people of Aliquippa and Georgetown.

Righter, who was born Oct. 23, 1923, in Philadelphia, was ordained deacon and priest in 1951 by then-Diocese of Pittsburgh Bishop Austin Pardue. He served churches in that diocese and in New Hampshire before being elected bishop.

He became the Diocese of Iowa's seventh bishop on January 12, 1972. He retired in 1988 and later served as assistant bishop in the Diocese of Newark under diocesan Bishop John Spong from 1989-1991.

In the mid-1990s, Righter became a flashpoint for tensions over the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in the life of the Episcopal Church. The bishops of Dallas, Florida, San Joaquin, Central Florida, Texas, Eau Claire, Fort Worth, Quincy, Rio Grande and West Tennessee filed a presentment against Righter in February 1995 because he had ordained an openly gay man to the diaconate in the Diocese of Newark in September 1990.

The bishops accused Righter of "holding and teaching. . . doctrine contrary to that held by this church" under the so-called "heresy" canon, and violating those vows both because he ordained the Rev. Barry Stopfel and because Righter signed a statement supporting the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals.

Righter faced the charge on the eve of the expiration of a five-year statute of limitations.

Meanwhile, 36 bishops issued a statement saying in part that his "trial is a trial of the Gospel, a trial of justice, a trial of fairness, and a trial of the church." The bishops said that they felt they were on trial as well and that if Righter was found guilty and sentenced, "we will accept his sentence as our own."

In May 1996, an ecclesiastical court ruled 7-1 that Righter's action did not violate church law or "core doctrine." Thus, the charges were dismissed.

The accusing bishops decided to ask the 1997 meeting of the General Convention to consider the issue of biblical authority and the ordination of non-celibate homosexual people. Many of the issues surrounding the full-inclusion of gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people in the life of the church were addressed during that meeting of convention.

Despite a lack of consensus on the issues, convention issued an apology to lesbians and gay men for "years of rejection and maltreatment by the church," while acknowledging "the diversity of opinion... on the morality of gay and lesbian sexual relationships." And one resolution amended Canon IV.15 to define "doctrine" as "the basic and essential teachings of the church" as is "to be found in the Canon of Holy Scripture as understood in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds and in the sacramental rites, the Ordinal and Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer."

Two years later, Stopfel, who had become the rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Maplewood, New Jersey, resigned that position, saying that his ministry had been "deeply gratifying but very stressful," and had strained his relationship with his partner, the Rev. Will Leckie. 

"Bishop Righter is one of the giants on whose shoulders gay and lesbian Christians stand," Diocese of New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson, who in 2003 became the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, told the Pittsburgh Gazette newspaper.

Righter is survived by his wife Nancy, four children and four grandchildren.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Episcopal Relief & Development or Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is a reporter/editor for Episcopal News Service.

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