The Rt. Rev. Walter Cameron Righter fought in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II, but among Episcopalians he may be best known for his sojourn with the Court for the Trial of a Bishop.
Righter, who was the seventh Bishop of Iowa, died Sept. 11 at his home in Export, east of Pittsburgh. He was 87. Calvary Church, Pittsburgh, hosted his funeral Sept. 15, and his remains will rest in the parish’s columbarium.
Ten bishops brought a presentment against Righter in February 1995 in response to his ordination (in 1990) of the Rev. Barry Stopfel as a deacon in the Diocese of Newark, N.J., where Righter was an assisting bishop. (The Rt. Rev. John S. Spong ordained Stopfel to the priesthood in 1991.) A majority of bishops approved sending the charges to the court. After two hearings, the court dismissed the case before trial in May 1996 and ruled that ordaining an openly gay man was not a matter of core doctrine.
Righter offered his perspective on the case in A Pilgrim’s Way (Alfred Knopf, 1998). Stopfel and his partner at the time, the Rev. Will Leckie of the United Church of Christ, wrote about the case, and their lives, in Courage to Love (Doubleday, 1997).
“Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to friendship as “a masterpiece of nature.” If it can be said that my friendship with Bishop Righter was a masterpiece then surely it was of his creation,” Stopfel told The Living Church. “He was a man of deep strength and conviction. His vision for love in the Church and in our world was expansive. My love for another man was no less equal than the love he had for his dear Nancy. In a world where hard power is the idol Walter embodied the strength gained from persuasion, kindness and decency.”
Stopfel added that “what Bishop Righter and I did together was a very personal matter. He knew that his prophetic act — in all its vision and as some would say its heresy was not just theology, or an abstract concept of justice making, or a matter of doctrine, though it was tied to all of those things too — was embodied in a man of flesh and blood on whom he would lay his hands.”
Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori also paid tribute to Righter in a statement issued a day after his death.
“The Episcopal Church can give thanks for the life of a faithful and prophetic servant,” she said. “He proclaimed the gospel for more than 60 years in this Church, through trials and great joys. His ministry will be remembered for his pastoral heart and his steadfast willingness to help the church move beyond old prejudices into new possibilities.”
Walter Righter was born in Philadelphia in 1923. He completed degrees at the University of Pittsburgh (1948) and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale (1951). He was ordained deacon and priest in 1951. Righter was consecrated as Bishop of Iowa in 1972 and served until 1988.
Bishop Righter was welcomed back to the Diocese of Pittsburgh after the Rt. Rev. Robert W. Duncan helped found the Anglican Church in North America and was deposed as a bishop of the Episcopal Church.
Stopfel added: “Bishop Walter Righter not only hoisted me upon his shoulders but also stood by my side, held me up, and by the power of the Holy Spirit in him made me more than I could ever have imagined becoming. As I wrote him in June, ‘You will be close to my heart until the end of my life … and in the crossing over … at the arrival on the other shore … and on and on ….’
“Yes, Bishop Walter Righter was a good and faithful servant. That is for certain. Yet he remains my beloved friend because he chose love over doctrine and life over death.”