Walter Righter, a bishop in the Episcopal Church and a staunch LGBT supporter among faith leaders, died Sunday at his home outside Pittsburgh. He was 87 years old.
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 was an assistant bishop in the Diocese of Newark, N.J.
Righter became a lightning rod for dissent over the ordination of gays in the Episcopal Church when he was an assistant bishop in Newark, N.J., under Bishop John Spong, an outspoken supporter of ordaining lesbians and gays.
In 1990, with Spong’s approval, Righter ordained Barry Stopfel, whom he knew to be gay, as a deacon, a rank below that of priest. The next year Spong ordained Stopfel as a priest.
Church conservatives focused their outrage on Righter but did not file formal charges against him until 1995, when a five-year statute of limitations was set to expire. He was tried in 1996 by a panel of eight bishops, who, in voting 7 to 1 to dismiss the heresy charges, ruled that there was no church doctrine forbidding the ordination of gays and lesbians who are in a committed relationship.
Righter wrote about his experience in a 1998 memoir, “A Pilgrim’s Way,” and once said that his accusers were “irrational,” did not understand “the tides of history” and focused only on their fears.
In 2009, the Episcopal Church affirmed that “gays and lesbians in lifelong committed relationships,” could be ordained, saying that “God has called and may call such individuals to any ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.”
The Episcopal Church currently has two openly gay bishops.