The bishop who went to court

By on January 1, 1999

Walter Righter is the second bishop this century to be tried for heresy in the United States. In 1995, 10 bishops brought charges against him for violating his ordination vows and “teaching a doctrine contrary to that held by this church.”

His crime had been to ordain a homosexual man in a committed relationship. The resulting trial focused international attention on both the Episcopal Church and Bishop Righter himself.

American bishops have a good deal less latitude in ordination than Canadian bishops. The U.S. system of checks and balances requires diocesan approval of candidates for Holy Orders, whereas in Canada the decision is the bishop’s alone. Yet Bishop Righter was singled out by his conservative opponents, partly because he was considered vulnerable as a divorced and retired man, but also because they were afraid to confront their principal target, Bishop John Spong.

A Pilgrim’s Way by Walter C. Righter
Random House
$31.00 (cloth)
ISBN 679-45442-X

Bishop Righter describes his sense of shock when the charges were laid, his deep sense of betrayal by fellow bishops, the outpouring of support from across the country that restored his confidence, and the grace that came to him through the trial itself. Those of us who went to Lambeth will recognize here the dynamics of fear and animosity still directed toward homosexuals by the church. That Bishop Righter failed to foresee the conservative backlash in religion we are experiencing today – well-organized, well-financed and in control, for the most part, of church media – is evident throughout the book, giving it a naivete which, while endearing, in the end is disappointing.

Michael Ingham is Bishop of New Westminster (Vancouver).

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