Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dispatches from the Holy War: 9/13

Bishop Walter C. Righter and his wife, Nancy.

Bishop Walter C. Righter, who led the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa from 1972 until 1988 and played a key role in the fight for both women’s and LGBT rights in the church, died Sunday at his home in Export, Pennsylvania, at the age of 87.

And it just occurred to me, looking at some key dates in his ministry, how fast time flies and how fast the landscape, religious and otherwise, changes. After all, 1972 was just the other day.

When Bishop Righter arrived in Iowa, women were not ordained as deacons or priests, let alone as bishops, in the Episcopal Church.

During 1974, three retired Episcopal bishops ordained 11 women in Philadelphia, resulting in a great uproar within the patriarchy. Four more women were ordained in Washington, D.C., during 1975. On Dec. 16, 1976, Righter brought Iowa to the forefront by ordaining as deacon the Rev. S. Suzanne Peterson at St. Paul’s Church in Des Moines.

All of these ordinations were ruled “irregular” because they had been done without authorization from General Convention, but when delegates convened during 1976 they approved ordination of women both to the priesthood and the episcopate with minimal fuss and all previous ordinations were regularized.

In the mere 40 years since, women ordained as deacon, priest and bishop have become integral to the life of the Episcopal Church and Katharine Jefferts Schori, formerly bishop of Nevada, was elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United Church during the 2006 General Convention. What in the world was all the fuss about?

Righter retired as Iowa bishop during 1988, but went on to serve as assistant bishop to the Rt. Rev. John Shelby Spong, of the Diocese of Newark, N.J.

While there, during 1990, only 21 years ago, Righter ordained Barry Stopfel as deacon. Stopfel was gay, living with his partner. This was the first time a self-affirming, non-celibate gay person had been ordained in the Episcopal Church. Righter also had signed earlier a statement saying that he supported the ordination of non-celibate LGBT people.

Again, some in the patriarchy were outraged both by the act of ordination and the signature. Ten bishops filed a formal complaint charging Righter with heresy and he was tried on that charge by a church court during 1996. That court ruled that “The Episcopal Church has no doctrine prohibiting the ordination of homosexuals.” That was only 15 years ago.

In the intervening years, V. Gene Robinson was elected bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003, less than 10 years ago, and during 2009, the Episcopal House of Bishops defied the Anglican Communion, which had attempted to place a moratorium on LGBT ordinations, by declaring “any ordained ministry” open to gay men and lesbians.” ELCA Lutherans the Presbyterian Church (USA) have followed that lead in welcoming gay and lesbian clergy, a move pioneered by the Metropolitan Community Church, Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ.

In most diocese, Episcopal clergy routinely bless the unions of and marry, where legal, LGBT parishioners. That includes Iowa. General Convention delegates are expected to debate next year formal rituals for same-sex marriage and the blessing of same-sex unions when marriage is not an option.

"The Episcopal Church can give thanks for the life of a faithful and prophetic servant. He proclaimed the gospel for more than 60 years in this church, through trials and great joys," Jefferts Schori said Monday. "His ministry will be remembered for his pastoral heart and his steadfast willingness to help the church move beyond old prejudices into new possibilities. He embodied the one of whom it is said, 'well done, good and faithful servant.' May Walter rest in peace and rise in glory, and may all who mourn be comforted."

Amen, to that.


Waterloo police last week charged Paris Akeem Anding, 19, with second degree murder in the death during late August of Marcellus Andrews, killed with a baseball bat after having been taunted with anti-gay slurs.

Police have maintained that, despite the slurs, Andrews’ death does not qualify as a hate crime. He apparently was a bystander somehow caught up in a fight not of his own making between two rival groups, police say.

Andrews had not, so far as is known, declared a sexual orientation. His family continues to maintain he was not gay and support the police position that bias was not involved in his death.

A cousin, Renicia Haywood, said that a person who “displays perceived feminine actions” is not necessarily gay during a late August public meeting in Waterloo. And that of course is true.

But I couldn’t help being reminded of the days, also not so long ago, when thousands of young gay men were dying of AIDS. Some families, including a good number of Iowans, seemed more shamed by their sons’ sexual orientation than they were grieved by their deaths.

One of the sadder aspects of Andrews’ death, and of others perceived of as gay who die by their own hands or at the hands of others, is that they have been denied the right to define themselves and always now will be defined by others.

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