In Memoriam

End of the Mainline

Walter Righter, the Episcopalian bishop once charged with heresy, has died.

By 9.21.11

The Episcopal bishop whose acquittal in a church "heresy" trial 15 years ago ignited the ongoing schism within the U.S. Episcopal Church and the global Anglican Communion died last week in Pittsburgh.

Bishop Walter Righter, 87, set off a firestorm of controversy when he ordained an openly non-celibate homosexual man to the Episcopal deaconate in 1990. His heresy trial concluded in 1996 with a 7-1 dismissal of charges by a panel of fellow bishops. The episode further stoked disputes over scriptural authority and sexual ethics within America's once historically most prestigious Mainline denomination.

"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," pronounced a prominent pro-gay rights California priest in a Righter obituary. "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."

At the time of his well-publicized trial, Bishop Righter had told one newspaper: "I think we're making too much out of the bedroom."

Like many liberal prelates who fancy their supposed boldness in challenging Christian orthodoxy even as they embrace a far more suffocating secular liberal orthodoxy, Righter was proud of his "heresy" charges. He reportedly introduced himself at the trial as "Walter Righter, the heretic," while his beaming wife's name tag unabashedly declared "heretic's wife."

The complaint against Righter was brought by 10 conservative Episcopal bishops who, at the time of the verdict, seemed surprised and unprepared for the almost inevitable victory for sexual revolution within the Episcopal Church. Liberal skepticism of biblical authority, the virgin birth, and bodily resurrection of Christ, and other historic doctrines had swelled within the Episcopal Church's upper reaches for many decades prior to the Righter trial. Traditionalists had long complained about enthroned revisionism but never fully effectively organized to arrest, much less roll back, its captivity of the denomination's seminaries, agencies, and ruling councils. Righter's court in 1996 ruled that Episcopalianism had no core doctrine about homosexual behavior. But it may as well have ruled that the denomination had no essential teaching except for devoted adherence to America's liberal secular fads.

The twice-divorced Righter's ordination of Barry Stopfel, who was living "in a sexual partnership" with another man, would ultimately lay the groundwork for the consecration of the church's first openly partnered homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003.

In backing Righter, the church court's majority wrote that Episcopalian "core doctrine," such as proclaiming Jesus Christ's divinity, contained nothing barring a bishop from ordaining a homosexual as a deacon or priest. Of course, the polemical New Jersey bishop for whom Righter then worked, Bishop John Shelby Spong, was long since infamous for denying Christ's deity, or at least reinterpreting it as merely metaphorical window dressing. Spong himself never faced a heresy trial, and conservative bishops probably wanted to deny the media-hungry Spong the pleasure of such a spotlight.

Righter was neither the first Episcopal Church bishop in recent decades charged with heresy nor the first bishop to ordain a non-celibate homosexual. A similar heresy trial charging California Bishop James Pike was narrowly averted on three separate occasions in the 1960s, as the bishop had publicly rejected the virgin birth and other Christian teachings. The failure of other bishops to remove Pike until his 1969 resignation is also seen as a milestone in the Episcopal Church's move from orthodoxy.

In 1989, Newark Bishop John Shelby Spong had ordained another active homosexual, Robert Williams, which led the Episcopal Church's General Convention to "disassociate" itself from Spong's action. The Episcopal Church's statute on limitations had expired on Spong by the time of Righter's trial. Williams, who was HIV-positive, later died weakened from AIDS. Of course, Spong continued to ordain actively and openly homosexual priests while forming a second career around his rejection of traditional Christianity through initially provocative but ultimately tiresome revisionist books that championed a stale liberal orthodoxy.

"Jack [Spong] and the presiding bishop [of the Episcopal Church] agreed it was better for Jack not to ordain Barry Stopfel… because he [Spong] was a lightning rod for controversy, and I was kind of a safe person from Iowa, and not too many people paid attention to me," Righter once recounted to Religion News Service.

Stopfel went on to become an Episcopal priest in 1991, but the Righter trial took a toll on him and on his relationship with another male priest. After a brief tenure as rector of a New Jersey congregation, the homosexual clergyman departed to focus on writing and speaking on the subject of sexual intimacy and God. ''How is it that erotic touch can be filled with God, sexual touch can be holy touch?" Stopfel speculated in a 1999 New York Times interview. "How there is healing redemption there. And how it is that the church sees sexual intimacy as anti-God.''

According to the Times, Stopfel was exploring other ways of ministry outside of a parish. He especially wanted to reach those who left the church because of its supposed inability to address their questions on both theological and social issues. ''People are leaving the church in droves,'' Stopfel said. ''I want to start an independent ministry for people with serious questions and who want to find a spiritual path. I believe the Episcopal Church has the elasticity to do this.''

Righter's beginnings in the priesthood did not initially showcase theological "elasticity." The future bishop ministered at conservative congregations near Pittsburgh, which remains an outpost of conservative Anglicanism. He served from 1972 to 1988 as diocesan bishop in Iowa, relocating to Newark for his 1989-1991 tenure under Spong and later returning to Southwestern Pennsylvania in retirement.

"Bishop Righter is one of the giants on whose shoulders gay and lesbian Christians stand," openly homosexual New Hampshire Bishop Gene Robinson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Calling Righter "a faithful and prophetic servant," Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori solemnly told Episcopal News Service that the bishop "will be remembered for his pastoral heart and his steadfast willingness to help the church move beyond old prejudices into new possibilities." She did not mention how Righter's trial eventually divided her church in the U.S., estranged it from much of overseas Anglicanism, and accelerated an already unsustainable membership drain.

Righter was a World War II veteran who fought at the Battle of the Bulge. Later he attended seminary at Yale. He exemplified the public service and distinguished WASP ascendancy of many Mainline Protestant elites, especially Episcopalians. Such men for centuries either ran or inspired much of America until the 1960s and 1970s, when they sadly lost faith in many of the virtues that ennobled their institutions. Their decline was a loss for America. May Bishop Righter rest in peace, and may many learn from his legacy. 

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About the Author

Jeff Walton directs the Anglican program at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.