Episcopal bishop who won heresy trial dies at 87

September 12, 2011

WASHINGTON (RNS) 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.