Rt. Rev. Walter Righter had ably served as bishop of the Iowa Episcopal Diocese for sixteen years, and in 1988 at age 65 he had earned voluntary retirement. Little did the combat veteran of the WWII Battle of the Bulge know that his most significant contribution in conflict would come a decade later.
First came the call from the bishop of the Diocese of Newark, Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong. Righter was persuaded to join the diocese in 1989 as Spong’s lieutenant, his assistant bishop, but only for a few more years. Spong’s reputation as an outspoken progressive didn’t scare him off; he was moving in that direction himself. At the General Convention of 1979, the “height of homophobia” according to Dr. Louie Crew of Integrity, Bishop Righter had voted with the majority in the House of Bishops in rejecting an LGBT-friendly task force recommendation and resolving, “it is not appropriate for this Church to ordain a practicing homosexual.” At that time, he was certainly not with the bishops who filed a “Statement of Conscience” in dissent. However, a decade later, he was willing to stand with Spong who lit a fire in the Episcopal Church by publicly ordaining an openly gay man just before Christmas in 1989. Bishop Spong had to take care not to trip over the TV cables for the broadcast of the ordination ceremony, which was looped as lead story on CNN every half hour.
As Spong dodged barbs and arrows during 1990, another gay man requested ordination. Better to let Walter do it, in a quiet, private ceremony, Spong and Righter decided. Late in the year, assistant Bishop Righter ordained Barry Stopfel, a partnered gay man, to the diaconate, a non-sacerdotal role that was often a steppingstone to ordination as a priest. Indeed, the following year, Bishop Spong himself ordained Stopfel to the priesthood. About that time, Bishop Righter retired for good.
Four years later in 1995, Episcopal gatekeepers feared that the walls were about to be breached; it was time for a last stand, much like the Germans’ counterattack against the onslaught of the allies in what history has labeled the Battle of the Bulge. With unintended irony, their target would be a survivor of the original Battle of the Bulge. For only the second time in the entire history of the Episcopal Church in America, an Episcopal bishop would be charged with heresy, and Bishop Walter Righter would be the accused, based upon his 1990 ordination of Barry Stopfel.
Why the assistant and not the ringleader? Perhaps for reasons of the statute of limitations. The gatekeepers planned to go after Spong after first dispatching his lieutenant.
“This is ridiculous … It is harassment … not of me, but of the church,” Bishop Richter said when informed of the presentment against him, a formal charge of heresy filed by ten fellow bishops.
On May 18th, 1995 Bishop Righter’s counsel filed his answer, and his supporting brief framed the issue in the broadest possible terms: that the core doctrines of the church did not preclude LGBT ordination. If the conservatives wanted a test case to determine once and for all whether the church could or would ordain LGBT candidates, Bishop Righter and his allies would welcome a frontal attack.
Much like its civil counterpart, the ecclesiastical trial would involve precise, formal procedures. Much like the chronology of a civil trial, the heresy proceedings against Bishop Righter would be drawn out. More than a year would elapse after the filing of charges and still Bishop Righter had not had his day in court.
On February 27, 1996, the latest in a series of pre-trial hearings took place at the Wilmington Cathedral of Hartford, Connecticut. At issue was the central defense argument that mere resolutions, such as the 1979 resolution, were not equivalent to the core doctrines of the church. Local and national press swarmed about the Cathedral, but when the parties and the judges began to meander through the thicket of Episcopal canon law, the mood turned quiet and solemn, with occasional snatches of humor, as often is the case in the verbal jousting of skilled lawyers.
Sitting in the overflow crowd, Barry Stopfel and Will Leckie, partners for eleven years, watched with greater interest than the others. It was Stopfel’s ordination nearly six years earlier and his relationship with Leckie that had triggered the charges against Bishop Righter. Stopfel willingly addressed the press, noting that he and Leckie had decided to sacrifice privacy in order to put their faces on the case, to remove it from abstraction to the personal:
At first I was hesitant to make myself… so visible. But more and more I thought: I want to put a face on this abstract concept. So Will and I just decided the price we were going to pay was to do that.
As in a civil trial, the court adjourned and took the matter under advisement. Both sides were to present further written argument, and a decision was not expected soon.
Nearly three months later, on May 16, 1996, the court announced its decision based upon a 7-1 vote of the sitting judges. Bishop Cabell Tennis of Delaware, a lawyer and member of the court, read a summary of the decision to a breathless crowd. Behind him, a stained glass depiction of the last supper seemed to suggest that Jesus was looking over his shoulder. When Bishop Tennis read that there was “no core doctrine prohibiting the ordination of a non-celibate, homosexual person living in a faithful and committed sexual relationship with a person of the same sex,” the crowd exhaled. The case was over and ordination of LGBT candidates had been countenanced by the highest Episcopal court; unless and until a General Convention would adopt canon law to the contrary, the law of the Episcopal landscape was now settled.
Dr. Louie Crew, who had been on the frontlines from the beginning, had the last word:
After twenty years of struggle, with many tears and prayers, a great moral victory had been won.
Assistant Bishop Walter Righter, drafted into the fray, had his moment in history.
The book is now available!
Well, sort of. It is in and out of availability on Amazon, but it is available directly from the publisher, Barnes and Noble, Cokesbury, or an autographed copy straight from me. Amazon offers it in digital, eBook format for Kindle, and Barnes and Noble offers it for Nook and other epub format devices.
This is the latest installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. As with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book.
Here’s the list of prior posts:
1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)
1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)
1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)
1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)
1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)
1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)
1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)
1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)
1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)
1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)
1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)
1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)
1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)
1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)
1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)
1992 Janie Spahr (Presbyterian leader of “That All May Freely Serve”)
1994 Ross Merkel (defrocked Lutheran allowed to remain on call with a “wink-and-a-nod” from his bishop)