Walter C. Righter, a retired Episcopal bishop and early gay rights defender, has died at his home in Export, Pennsylvania on Sunday.
The former bishop played a pivotal role in gay rights and the church when he was involved in a heresy trial. After hiring a non-celibate homosexual deacon in 1990, Righter was accused of heresy, or false teaching, by the Episcopal Church.
In 1996, the Church ruled that church doctrine did not explicitly ban the ordination of practicing homosexuals. The victory for Righter also served as a win for gay rights in the Church. It was the first heresy case in the Church since the 1920s.
In 1997, Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention issued an apology to gays and lesbians for “years of rejection and maltreatment by the church.”
Suffering from heart and lung ailments, Righter died at age 87, and leaves behind his wife, the Former Nancy Tolbert, a brother, four children, and four grandchildren.
Rich Creehan, a spokesperson for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh where Righter was ordained 60 years ago, confirmed the former bishop’s death.
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In a statement, controversial Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said: “His ministry will be remembered for his pastoral heart and his steadfast willingness to help the church move beyond old prejudices into new possibilities.”
Born in Philadelphia, Penn., Righter served as a priest in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire before becoming a bishop in 1972. With the Diocese of Iowa he served as bishop, where he ordained the first female deacon in the state, and later became assistant bishop with the Diocese of Newark, N.J., where he hired Reverend Barry Stopfel- a deacon he knew to be gay.
After the victory of the heresy trial, Righter told the New York Times: “I think we’re making too much out of the bedroom,” about the future of homosexuality in the Church.
The issue of homosexuality in the Church has deeply divided the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Next year at the Episcopal Church General Convention, there will most likely be a debate as to whether rights for same-sex unions should be formalized.
The Church currently has two openly gay bishops, which has threatened to cause schism in the Church.