Walter C. Righter dies; Episcopal bishop played role in gay rights in church

September 12, 2011

Walter C. Righter, an Episcopal bishop whose victory in a 1996 heresy trial played a key role in the push for gay rights in the church, died Sept. 11 at his home in Export, Pa. He was 87.

He died of heart and lung ailments, said his wife, the former Nancy Tolbert.

“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 Integrity USA, a group that promotes inclusiveness in the church.

Bishop 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, N.J.

In 1990, Bishop Righter ordained Barry Lee Stopfel, a non-celibate gay man, as a deacon. Ten bishops brought charges against Bishop Righter, alleging that he violated 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, Bishop Righter told the Times, “I think we’re making too much out of the bedroom.”

Walter Cameron Righter was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 23, 1923. He served in the Army in Europe during World War II and participated in the Battle of the Bulge.

He received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1948 and a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology in 1951 from Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University. From 1954 to 1972, he was the rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Nashua, N.H.

The Episcopal Church, which now has two openly gay bishops and allows for the ordination of gays and lesbians in most dioceses, will likely debate formalized rites for same-sex unions at its General Convention next year.

Bishop Righter wrote a book, “A Pilgrim’s Way” (1998), about the aftermath of the ordination of Stopfel.

— Religion News Service

Staff writer Adam Bernstein contributed to this report.