A Pilgrim's Way

Overview

In the fall of 1990, Walter C. Righter, acting as an assisting bishop in New Jersey's Episcopal Diocese of Newark, ordained a highly qualified gay man who lived with his partner in a committed relationship. It was not the first such ordination and not even the first highly publicized one, but in 1995, a small group of fellow bishops brought charges against Righter for what he had done.

In A Pilgrim's Way, Bishop Righter tells his own story and...

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Overview

In the fall of 1990, Walter C. Righter, acting as an assisting bishop in New Jersey's Episcopal Diocese of Newark, ordained a highly qualified gay man who lived with his partner in a committed relationship. It was not the first such ordination and not even the first highly publicized one, but in 1995, a small group of fellow bishops brought charges against Righter for what he had done.

In A Pilgrim's Way, Bishop Righter tells his own story and the story of the ordination. He uncovers the machinations that set the conditions for such a trial long before the "victim" was selected. He recounts the accusation in 1995 of teaching false doctrine, the long wait for the process to unfold, the harassment, the hearings, the outpouring of support, the media attention, and the church court's eventual finding that no "core doctrine" had been violated. We see Bishop Righter's own rage and fear overcome as he begins to understand what fuels the rage and fear of his accusers. By the time his sixteen-month ordeal has ended he is proud to have been a catalyst for major decisions about gay and lesbian rights in the church.

Righter very forthrightly shares the insights he gained about the connection between misogyny and homophobia. He explains the inner, and often inglorious, workings of the House of Bishops. With great candor he reveals the undercurrents in his own life that may well have caused his opponents to think him vulnerable. It becomes quite clear, however, that those opponents badly misjudged both the man and the church. As Righter shows, the work begun in his defense and in his exoneration continued afterward and goes on still.

The"heretic" outed the church and became a hero. In A Pilgrim's Way we see how it happened.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
June 1998

Having been raised steeped in the Episcopal tradition myself, I found much to enjoy about Walter C. Righter's book, A Pilgrim's Way. Some of my classmates from school are included in the book since, through legal or church activities, they were somehow involved in the case at hand. I worked with the AIDS Service Center of Pasadena, California, as a volunteer for a few years, and this was originally a "spin-off" of All Saints Church, a very gay- and lesbian-supportive Episcopal church in southern California. Not so strangely, I feel close to this material in more ways than just being a gay man.

Walter C. Righter and his wife, Nancy, are a couple I would like to meet. He was the retired Episcopal bishop who made headlines a few years back for having ordained an openly gay man, who was in a committed, loving relationship with another man. I still don't understand why any of this is such a problem for a single human being in the United States, let alone a church as generally liberal in such things as the Episcopal Church. I was baptized Episcopalian, went to an Episcopal high school, and certainly felt that of all the churches I'd been to, this was one of the more forward-thinking with regard to inclusion of what other churches considered outsiders — including gays and lesbians. It was a bit of an eye-opener to read this book, with its exposé of the horrendous politicking that goes on among clergy.

Righter very intelligently notes the link between misogyny in the church and an antigay stance. But more than this, he describes something thatIcan only call a spiritual allegiance to the true principles of Christianity. That spiritual allegiance, which, if we can disregard the brainwashing that rather shallow people use who seem to have read only the few passages in the Bible that condemn women, homosexuals, and others, is the wonderful revelation at the core of A Pilgrim's Way.

In A Pilgrim's Way, Righter tells of his experience as a man of the church being accused of heresy. Barry Stopfel was, to Righter, an ideal candidate for priesthood, and Stopfel's relationship with his lover was, according to Righter, better than many other marital unions among the clergy. This was in Newark, New Jersey, part of a diocese that Righter considered fairly broad-minded and a bit of a melting pot for the Episcopal Church. Soon, bishops were meeting to bring the charge of heresy, an accusation that had not been used in the church since the 1920s. The antigay and antiwoman stance of some of these bishops — many of whom are not supported in these views by their congregations — comes through fairly clearly. As with all churches, a small percentage of the whole turns out to be full of the rage-aholics, and Righter and his wife find themselves the subject of ecclesiastical and media scrutiny.

While this plays out to the public, and the Righters become aware of the growing support for their position, the story at times gets a bit bogged down in all the names of bishops, lawyers, and supporters and loses a bit of steam. However, what will enthrall you is the story of Righter, born in the '20s, and his enlightenment with regard to his belief in the message of Christianity, bound up with the discrimination against gays and lesbians within the church to which he devoted his life.

This is a fine journal of this history-making moment, as well as a story of one man thrown into the media eye, accused of heresy in his retirement by his own church, who withstood the politics and the pressure and found a higher ground. I would've liked more of Barry Stopfel and his partner's experience throughout this book, but I can understand that in many ways, Walter C. Righter penned this as a mission statement for the Episcopal Church to move forward into the 21st century. A Pilgrim's Way comes recommended.

Florence King
There's no real way to review it. . . .Nobody got burned at the stake but you'll get burned if you shell out 22 bucks for this book. —National Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In January 1995, a small group of Episcopalian bishops brought charges against Walter C. Righter, an assistant bishop in the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, N.J. Bishop Righter had ordained into the priesthood a qualified gay man who was in a long-term monogamous relationship with another gay man. This was not the first time such an ordination had taken place, but Righter's opponents chose this ordination to draw a line in the sand. Here Righter tells his side of the story in prose that is both personal and captivating. "Here were people who had been faithful to the church's purpose all of their lives. Here were people who looked to the church to provide moral leadership, to open the doors to health, wholeness, and healing. And yet the church was resisting." The Righter case drew national attention not only to Righter himself but also, more importantly, to the practices and beliefs of the Episcopal church. Righter narrates the attempt to bring this incident to trial, and he discusses the implications of this event for the future of the Episcopal church in the United States. Finally, the Righter case called into question the means by which the Episcopal church determines orthodoxy. Righter's book offers a riveting account of the church's attempt to hold a modern-day heresy trial.
Florence King
There's no real way to review it. . . .Nobody got burned at the stake but you'll get burned if you shell out 22 bucks for this book. --National Review
Kirkus Reviews
Righter, retired Episcopal bishop of Iowa, tells the story of the nationally publicized heresy trial brought upon him for ordaining a gay man. Bishop Righter details a case of the cruel politics loosed in the Episcopal Church by clerical resisters to social change. The book opens with the words of the ecclesiastical court that exonerated the bishop from any wrongdoing in ordaining Barry Stopfel, an openly gay man in a committed relationship, to the diaconate, the first rung of clerical orders. It then backtracks to the bishop's childhood and active career in the Church, moving from a midwestern setting where "an interracial marriage was defined as a union between a Norwegian and a Swede," to the more highly charged ethnic mix of the Episcopal Church's diocese of Newark, NJ—a progression he labels "the process of becoming a liberal." But the book's most intellectually stimulating pages address the Kafkaesque anomaly of heresy as such emerging to occupy a mainline Protestant denomination in the late, post-heretical years of the 20th century. The bishop astutely connects homophobia to misogyny, and helpfully distinguishes doctrine from recommendation in Church polity, and consensus from compromise. But he never quite explains how, after the Episcopal Church, in 1994, canonically forbade discrimination against candidates for the priesthood on the basis of sexual orientation, ten conservative bishops could have colluded, in 1995, to bring about the heresy trial in the first place. Some minor errors and inelegances mar the writing: For instance, the bishop unduly credits the world, in 1939, with significant moral outrage over Hitler's treatment of Jews and gays; and he clumsilydescribes a sympathetic new acquaintance as "genuine-seeming". An informative if loosely structured and digressive memoir by a cleric who helped move his Church toward greater inclusiveness.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679454427
  • Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/26/1998
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 168
  • Product dimensions: 5.93 (w) x 8.70 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Cameron Righter was born in Philadelphia in 1923. Following military service in World War II, he received his B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh and his M.Div. from the Berkeley Divinity School, and served churches in Aliquippa and Georgetown, Pennsylvania, and Nashua, New Hampshire. He was consecrated Bishop of Iowa in 1972 and held that post through 1988. Following retirement he served as interim rector at churches in Rockford, Illinois, and Ridgewood, New Jersey, and as an assisting bishop in the Diocese of Newark from 1989 to 1991. He now lives in Alstead, New Hampshire.

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Interviews & Essays


Before the live bn.com chat, Walter C. Righter agreed to answer some of our questions.

Q: When you set out to ordain a gay man, did you envision that there would be so much controversy in the world of the Episcopal Church?

A: No. It was the right thing to do. Barry was overqualified and is exercising a superb ministry at St. George's in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Q: Did it surprise you to learn that your heresy trial before the Episcopal Church's House of Bishops was only the second such case in more than 200 years? What do you make of this?

A: No. I knew there was only one and that several had been attempted and failed in my time in the House of Bishops. Panic and fear over change grew to a point where people got desperate and tried again and failed!

Q: How do you define courage?

A: The French word means "heart." Paul Tillich speaks of "the courage to be." I would say both are involved -- the courage to be for others what you believe in your heart. It was a real privilege for Nancy and me to try to do that!


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