Bishop Robert C. Witcher | Diocese of Long Island

By Kirk Petersen

The Rt. Rev. Robert C. Witcher, who served from 1977 to 1991 as the VI Bishop of Long Island, passed away June 14 at the age of 94. His family held a private funeral on June 18 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

During his episcopacy, Witcher was known for his commitment to the needs of retired clergy, his involvement in international affairs, and his opposition to the ordination of women.

Because of his opposition, Long Island was among the last dioceses in the Church to ordain female priests, and the issue closely tracked his career.  He was elected bishop coadjutor in November 1974, four months after the unauthorized ordination of the “Philadelphia Eleven” — the first female priests in the Church. Female priests were formally authorized by the General Convention of 1976, several months before Witcher succeeded the Rt. Rev. Jonathan Goodhue Sherman as bishop diocesan in 1977.

According to a biography on the website of the Diocese of Long Island, “Bishop Witcher strategically handed over the ordination process to Bishop Orris Walker, who had been elected coadjutor in 1987.  The Rev. Noreen Mooney, one of the first three women ordained priest in Long Island, said she hoped Witcher is remembered “…for the very statesman-like and gracious way in which he moved the diocese forward without reneging on his own vision of things.”

Bishop Witcher was especially concerned with the diocesan Commission on Ministry, and the need to minister to retired clergy. He expanded social outreach through health care and affordable housing, led the Nehemiah interfaith housing ministry in Brooklyn, and created an office of ministry for the aging.  He was instrumental in the founding of parishes for Caribbean, Latino and Asian immigrants.

In 1988, Bishop Witcher participated in efforts to free Western hostages in Lebanon. He contacted Iranian officials after five Kurds from Iran were sent to the diocese’s St. John’s Episcopal Hospital for treatment from Iraqi gas attacks.

“Bishop Witcher was a kind, gentle, holy man of God,” said the Rt. Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, VIII Bishop of Long Island. “He faced the challenges of his time with much dignity and grace.  He provided a steadfast form of pastoral leadership and shepherded the diocese through some of the most difficult times in its history.  We offer our prayers to his family and especially his wife, Alice.”

Bishop Witcher was a member of the Episcopal Church Council for the Development of Ministry, and chaired its committee on canonical revisions in 1987 that emphasized the ministry of all baptized persons.

He also served as a trustee of the General Theological Seminary, the Church Pension Fund, and Seabury-Western Seminary.

In 1989, Bishop Witcher convened a diocesan conference on “economic justice through investments,” and spoke about the theology behind a call for an economic justice program. That same year, he was appointed by the Presiding Bishop to serve as Interim Bishop for the Armed Forces.

Bishop Witcher was a Louisiana native. Born in 1926, he grew up in New Orleans where his family was a member of Grace Church. At sixteen, he entered Tulane University for a short period before enlisting in the Navy V-5 program, in which he served until the end of the war. Sensing a call to ordained ministry, he returned to Tulane and on graduation spent three years at Seabury-Western Seminary in Illinois. He was ordained deacon at Christ Church Cathedral, New Orleans on July 6, 1952 and ordained priest in St. James’, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on June 1, 1953.

As a priest in Louisiana, he established three rural parishes and in New Orleans served the cathedral as canon pastor.  Next, he was called to be rector of St. James, Baton Rouge, but was able also to devote time to the diocese and the wider church.  He was president of the Standing Committee and was a deputy to General Convention from 1964 to 1974.  He also completed further graduate studies at Louisiana State University, earning an MA in 1960 and a Ph.D. in history in 1968.

Bishop Witcher is survived by his wife, Alice; children, Elisabeth and Robert; and several grandchildren. The diocese plans a memorial service at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, sometime in the coming weeks.