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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

In those days, there were giants

the Rt. Rev'd Walter Righter and his beloved Nancy

It's hard to believe that Bishop Walter Righter is dead. He was 87 years old.

It's harder, in a way, to believe that the infamous "Walter Righter Heresy Trial" was in 1995.  That was sixteen years ago.  Sixteen years later we now have two bishops in the House of Bishops who are able to be self-affirming about their sexual orientation. The Episcopal Church now allows for the ordination of gays and lesbians in most dioceses, and will, most likely, formalized rites for same-sex unions at its General Convention next year.

the Rev'd Barry L. Stopfel
Back then, however, Bishop Righter had ordained Barry Lee Stopfel, a noncelibate gay man, as a deacon in 1990. Ten bishops brought charges against Righter, alleging that he violated both the doctrine of the church and his ordination vows by ordaining Stopfel.

In a verdict issued on May 15, 1996, a church court stated that the Episcopal Church "has no doctrine prohibiting the ordination of homosexuals," and that Bishop Righter did not contradict any "core doctrine" of the church.

It was the obvious, easy answer, but it was not an easy time, to be sure. Indeed, those were deeply troubled times, enough to make otherwise brave men and women stoop and hide and even run for cover.

But, in those days and by the grace of God, there were giants who walked among us.

I was honored and privileged with the task of preaching the sermon for the Service of Evensong that was held at St. Luke's, Montclair, NJ on the eve of the beginning of the Ecclesiastical Court Trial. I was as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers, but I preached my little anxious heart out for Walter and Barry.

I will never - ever - forget the sound of almost a thousand people singing "Wade in the Water" with me at the end of the sermon. I especially remember hearing the voice of Dana Rose, one of the few self-affirming gay African American men at that time who was yet to be ordained priest (and now numbered among the saints), spontaneously rising from his place in the congregation to stir our hearts and lead us in singing that old, old song of freedom. 

At the reception afterwards, Bishop Walter sought me out in the Very Large crowd that packed that church.  As he approached me, I could see the twinkle in his eye that so many of us loved about him, even from afar. He put his hands on my shoulders, looked deep into my eyes and said, from the bottom of his heart. "Thank you. I think I can go to court tomorrow and give 'em heaven."

And then he hugged me. Tight. To be hugged by Bishop Walter was to melt into the warmth of all the love in his pastoral heart.

Thanks to the Improbable History of Mr. Peabody's "Way Back Machine" I was able to find a copy of that sermon.  It's amazing - and a bit sad if not frustrating - that, 16 years later, it still preaches (and the little play-on-words at the beginning still works).

There are still places in The Episcopal Church which have not yet been able to receive the "Good News" of Christ Jesus that the Realm of God is for absolutely everyone.  It will be hard to find giants like Walter Righter to go into those places and take bold action for Christ.

Bishop Walter was not a man possessing of great physical stature. Neither was he a brilliant theologian nor a great orator. He was simply a man with the heart of a pastor who loved Jesus and took seriously his baptismal vows which allowed him to wade in the troubled waters of the church.

It made him a Giant of Justice. And, when giants take their leave of us I suppose we should not be surprised by the largeness of their loss and the emptiness we feel.

I preached this sermon in your honor once, Bishop Walter, and submit it again to honor the enormous contribution you have made to my life and the lives of so many other people.

We have come very, very far in 16 years but we still have yet so far to go. There are still giants who walk among us. We need more of them to "give us heaven".

Bishop Walter, if you would be so kind, when you get a chance, could you perhaps whisper in God's ear to send us a few more? The loss of you is so great but the need for justice for all of God's children presses on us with even greater urgency - especially, it seems, in these days.

Rest well, thou good and faithful servant. Well done. Well done, indeed.

"Wade in the Water"
A Sermon for Evensong in support of
+Walter Righter and Barry Stopfel+
Elizabeth Kaeton+
The Episcopal Church of St. Luke
Montclair, NJ
October 9, 1995
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
My God’s gonna trouble the water.
(LEVAS II #143)
Please pray with me: Holy God, source of light and life, let the words of your Holy Scriptures illumine the words of this meditation, that your people may find the courage to wade in the waters of their faith, through Jesus Christ, our hope and our salvation. Amen.

Just around this time of year, ten years ago, I sat n a room with some fellow seminarians to begin a study group. We were preparing ourselves for that major “hoop” in the homestretch of the obstacle course on the pathway toward ordination: the dreaded “G.O.E’s.”

As I recall, a great deal of anxiety was provoked by one question in particular. It was deemed by my group to have a peculiar deadliness because of its seeming simplicity. The question was: What is the difference between ‘the right’ and ‘the good’?

As the rest of us groaned and moaned and began to formulate answers, one of our members sat in amused silence. Finally, she blurted out, “It’s all very simple! It can be answered in one sentence.” Astonished into silence, all heads turned to hear her answer. What’s the difference between ‘the right’ and ‘the good’?

Easy! God is good and the Bishop is right!

Well, that was ten years ago, and some things have changed and others have not. The question has been reformulated: God is good, but which Bishop is right? The House of Bishops seems to be a house divided against itself, and we all know the warning implicit in that biblical periscope.

If I may be so bold, I’d like to offer a possible, albeit simple, solution to the complex dilemma we seem to be in:

God is, indeed good, and our Bishop is Righter!

I found myself wanting to spend a lot of time in this sermon supporting Bishop Righter and Barry Stopfel by defending them against the charges of heresy. In one of my many drafts, I developed a defense strategy which led me to wander into the ‘Land of Grandiosity’, convinced that Christopher Darden or Johnny Cochran, or, at the very least, Mike Rehill, had nothing on me.

That's the real temptation of this situation, isn’t it? To separate things into good and bad, right and wrong, and to argue these issues in a litigious setting.

A piece of our religious heritage is the virus of ‘Christian triumphalism’ which has notoriously infected missionary efforts and raised the temperature of an evangelistic fervor which blinds the sight to the integrity of every human being. The contemporary reading from Jennifer Phillips which we heard tonight speaks well to this problem.

As my sermonic legal arguments became more complex and convoluted, I found myself sojourning into the temptation of my own sort of ‘Christian triumphalism’. What saved me, as it often does, is the rich heritage of Spirituals from another group of Christians who have triumphed over centuries of Christian tyranny. I kept hearing this simple song of freedom being whispered into my ear.
Wade in the water
Wade in the water, children
Wade in the water
My God’s gonna trouble the water.
Wade in the water. Code words for the people of the Underground Railroad. A signal for people kept in bondage for over 200 years to begin the journey into their freedom. The waters of the nearby streams and rivers, though fraught with danger, provided a measure of safety from those who would hunt them down and bring them back to slavery.

The people of faith who gave us this courageous hymn understood the power of the image of water. They knew well the sacred stories of creation when God troubled the waters. They saw themselves in the story of Moses leading his people out of the bondage in Egypt. For them, the parting of the waters, leading them to safety and freedom on dry land, was not some quaint piece of mythology. It was a very real hope and a promise to them that God would raise up leaders who would take them to the freedom God had promised them. So it is no coincidence that one of the verses of this song goes:
See that band all dressed in red?
(God’s gonna trouble the water)
Must be the children that Moses led.
(God’s gonna trouble the water).
These people of faith were singing this song for their lives. They knew that before the creation of the new order of freedom, God was gonna have to trouble the waters. They knew full well the words of Genesis: “In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was without form and voice, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind swept over the surface of the waters.”

It seems that before there is creation, even the creation of freedom from the chaos of slavery and bondage, God’s gonna trouble the water.

Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we are not here tonight to argue good and bad, right and wrong, and to triumph “our side” over “their side.” We are not here to sacrifice the tenets of our faith on the altars of legal expediency. Rather, we are here as midwives to a new order of creation with which the Body of Christ has been laboring long and hard.

Within the placental waters of our Baptism, the voice of Jesus calls to us from the womb of creation to deepen the commitment of our partnership with God in Christ. We are being called not only to support Walter and Barry, but to stand in solidarity with the poor in spirit (those who know their need of God), with those who mourn; with those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail, and with those who have suffered persecution for the cause of right.

We are called, each one of us, to serve those whom Jesus himself called “beloved.” And, by our vows of Baptism, we pledge to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves; and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being.

This is not a simple matter of being obedient to the “laws” of our Baptism. It is a much higher calling than that. This is about keeping the vows made for us in our Baptism as infants and which we re-affirmed for ourselves at Confirmation.

If we are not about this high calling, if we are not about living fully into the chaos of the mystery of our faith, then we have no claim to the priesthood of all believers. We are impostors and frauds, no better than the Levite and priest who passed by the man going down from Jerusalem to Jerico who fell into the hands of robbers, leaving him half dead.

In the history of this church “that man going down from Jerusalem to Jerico” have been and are African-Americans. They have been and are, still, women. And, they have been and are gay and lesbian people of all colors, many of whom are here tonight.

The good news of tonight’s scripture is that Jesus gives us a choice of the role we are to play in our community of faith. We can be helpless victims, half-dead on the road. We can be the priest who was obedient to temple laws. We can be the Levite who was obedient to cultural imperatives. Or, we can be the Samaritan who considered all these things and acted on faith.

As the church considers the choice of its own action, I call us to remember the powerful words of one of the saints of the Catholic Worker Movement, Brendon Walsh, "When they come for the innocent without crossing over your body, cursed by our religion and your life.”
Look like you better wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
My God’s gonna trouble the water.
The living waters of our Baptismal faith await us. There are no easy answers, no simple solutions there. This isn’t about being wrong or right, wronger or Righter or Spong or McKelvey or Stopfel or McHugh or Kaeton. Our very identity as Christians is on trial here.

This is not about following laws. This is about following the imperatives of Christ.

The only way to accomplish the imperatives of Christ is jump into the waters of our faith. But know this, for it is what was known and understood by those courageous travelers of the Underground Railroad: It is our feet, these feet, your feet, wading in the water, which troubles the water.

If we are God’s agents on this fragile earth, our island home, then the message from an old Baptist preacher I once heard is true: “Our extremities are God’s opportunities.”

The moment you put your faith into action the waters of creation begin to be troubled.

If I have learned nothing else in my privileged service in the urban arena, it is this: When you stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed, when you seek Christ in the ‘anawim’, the outcast and serve them with the dignity due to one of God’s creation, you invite the same persecution which has been visited upon them.

You see, it’s okay (in fact in some circles it’s very trendy) to serve “them” as long as “they” stay “those people”. As soon as “they” become “us”, as soon as we begin to live out and act our beliefs of equality, especially in creating access to avenues of power and authority within the structures of the institution, Oh Lord, the waters, they do get troubled!

Clearly, Bishop righter knows this well. He’s in some hot Baptismal water now!

In the waters of our Baptism, we are all one. Either that’s true and we live it with integrity, or it’s false and we confess ourselves impostors. We either have full access to all of the sacraments of the Church, or we have none.

We can not become “cafeteria Christians,” picking and choosing which bits of spiritual food we will serve to those who hunger and thirst for the true, full presence of Christ.

I ask you, are we or are we not assured of our worthiness in Christ at each and every Eucharistic banquet?

It comes down to this: If you don’t want to ordain lesbian and gay people, then stop baptizing us.

Stop nourishing us with the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation, or don’t even pretend to be surprised when we grow into the full stature of Christ!

As my Seminary Dean, Harvey Guthrie, once said to me, “The world is too broken a place and our people are hurting too deeply for us to play polite games with one another.”

The only way to the gate of heaven is through the waters of our faith, and those waters are fraught with trouble. The faith we share we share in Christ is neither easy nor convenient. Often, it pus is in the midst of a tidal wave of controversy with the expectations of our culture.

So it was for the travelers and builders and sponsors of the Underground Railroad. So it will be for us in our day.

“Wade in the water” is still code language for social reform and cultural revolution. These words continue the signal to begin the journey toward our freedom in Christ, “in whose service is perfect freedom.”

Our support for Walter and Barry in the form of this prayer service is a revolutionary act, make no mistake. They need to be continually uplifted before God in thought and prayer, and I pray that this is just the beginning of our commitment to do just that in your private and corporate acts of worship.

I’m going to call us into another revolutionary act. I want to ask us to live out our belief in the priesthood of all believers. I want us to put our bodies where our mouths have been. I want to ask each one of you to stand and extend your hands in a form of blessing for Walter and Barry.

Please join your hearts and minds and souls with mine in this blessing prayer.
Holy God, we ask you to look upon your servants Walter and Barry and behold the wonder of your creation! These are your faithful servants, and we whom they serve to the honor and glory of your Name give you thanks and praise for their lives and ministries of faith. They have stepped out in faith into the waters of Baptism and have troubled those waters in the strong conviction that you are calling us into a new understanding of the ancient order of creation.

Help them to know that no matter how much trouble they stir up for our sake you will be with them. When they hit their foot on the hard rock of confrontation, you will comfort their pain. When they stumble and fall into frustration or despair, you will lift them up. Help them know that the anawim join with Jesus in calling them ‘beloved.’ Help them hear the words you spoke to Jacob as words they can live by: Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go; for I will not leave you until I have done that of which I have spoken to you.” (Gen 28:15)

By the power of the Holy Spirit, may we together, Bishops, Priests and People of God, know the blessings of God which have been promised in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Let the word go forth: The saints of God are rising up with a song in their weary throats. Pray, sisters and brothers, to be in that number.

The people of God are wading in the water. The poor in spirit are claiming their inheritance. As St. Lutibelle is oft’ wont to remind us, “The meek are getting ready.”

The peacemakers, even now, are beating their swords into plowshares. And, bands of angels are in their sweet, sweet chariots, comin’ for to carry us home. Sing with me now
Look over yonder, what do I see?
(God’s gonna trouble the water.)
You know the Holy Ghost is a comin’ on thee.
(God’s gonna trouble the water.)
C’mon and wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water,
My God’s gonna trouble the water.
And let all God’s children say, “AMEN.”


Elaine C. said...

When I was in High School and College, +Walter Righter was the diocesan bishop of Iowa -- where I lived. A story I often tell, is of the conservative rector of my college parish Fr. Paul -- who argued with Bishop Righter on EVERYTHING. But I watched how God, the World and the Bishop gradual changed the beloved Fr. Paul. Bishop Righter made sure and ordain women asap. And as soon as the diocese had an ordained woman he always took a woman priest with him on visitations. This meant everyone was exposed to women clergy.

When Righter arrived the first time with a woman priest, Fr. Paul greeted them graciously, then locked himself in the sacristy (I was there a college freshman vesting as acolyte, and a witness), and Fr. Paul threw a temper tantrum, throwing bibles and prayer books, and fuming about priestesses -- and venting all of his upset -- as was typical of folks of that generation. Then again, he went out and was warm and gracious and friendly.

Fr. Paul's daughter was among the first women who attended and graduated from West Point. And between her, God, Bishop Righter, and those of us women college students and acolytes who served at that college church -- when I graduated from college -- Fr. Paul told me I had the heart and skills of a priest and should go to seminary. So much for the man who called women clergy priestesses.

Anyway, I remember Bishop Righter's pastoral love, gentle persistence and ongoing role model -- always lovingly tolerating the frequent argumentative letters from Fr. Paul -- and think of him as a kind saint -- who made many, many huge differences for the good in this church and people's lives ...

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Elaine, that's a wonderful, wonderful story of Bishop Walter. That's exactly the bishop I knew. Indeed, whenever there was a diocesan event, he would always whisper to +JSS, "make sure there are women represented at the altar." Bishop Jack took that advice to heart and, if someone messed up, he'd call women clergy out of the congregation before the Offertory Sentence. That was Jack doing that but it was Walter's inspiration.

SCG said...

I was a public radio journalist at the time of this nonsense, and had the privilege to interview Bishop Righter after the fact. He had been on a panel discussion in Miami at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference. We talked about the role of the media, and the role of the church, in shaping public opinion. When I was done with the interview, I turned off the recorder and shared with him that I had been raised an Episcopalian in New Hampshire. And I said, "Really, Bishop. We all know what heresy is in the Episcopal Church..." He looked at me inquisitively. "It's when you serve an Old-Fashioned in a martini glass!" He laughed. May light perpetual shine upon him, a truly courageous and kind man.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks for another great Walter story, SCG. Love it.

I thought heresy in TEC was when you used your salad fork for the main course. Oh wait, no. That's what will get you into hell instead of heaven.

Muthah+ said...

I never met +Walter but I carried on a wonderful correspondance with him for the last 5 or 6 years before he went into hospice. I had hoped to travel to P'burgh on my trip move to TX but it was not to be so. We would even talk on the telephone.

Even in his last years his love for Christ and for the Church were fresh as the morning. I hope the stories of +W abound and someone will write a biography. Rise in Glory, O Giant of the faith.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I once mentioned to Walter that I'd love to write his biography. He gulped and said, "I think you just gave me a heart attack". LOL.

Thanks for your stories, Lauren. I'm afraid Walther's "style" of being bishop is slowly fading from existence.

it's margaret said...

I have no Righter stories... Joel doesn't either.... BUT, I love your sermon, and we say AMEN. AMEN. AMEN!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Walter was the best sermon. Evah.

JCF said...


I wasn't at Barry's ordination to the diaconate, but I was present at his ordination to the priesthood (by Bishop Spong). I didn't know him personally, but he was an UTS alum, and a number of us current UTS students carpooled out to NJ to support him.

I don't think I was prepared for 1) homophobia to be so perverse: when an old geezer tottered forth at the "Objection Time", to loudly begin a graphic description of S-E-X (what kind of sex it was is irrelevant; the same happened at +Gene's consecration), but 2) how much more GRACE could abound, even under those circumstances. From Barry, from Barry's partner Will, from +John, from Carter Heyward (the preacher), from the Bdway-style belting soloist (she was great!), from the assembled congregation. Grace and more grace: God is in this place!!!!

...but this ordination was made possible by +Walter, a few months previous. May he rest in peace, and rise in glory!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

JCF - We were in the same church together and didn't even know it! It was a magnificent service, wasn't it?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Harvey - I think you meant to post your comment here:

Hey, a sermon that calls God's friends by their Hebrew name and quotes yrs truly cannot be all bad. Sorry I wasn't there! In 1975, when EDS appointed Sue Hiatt and Carter Heyward to the faculty and we were being kicked around by bishops and others, this purple shirted person I didn't recognize showed up and I figured "Here we go again." It was Walter Righter, and he said, "Good for you guys!" It lifted my load.

Matthew said...

I guess I don't know my Episcopal history very well, and I don't mean to make this personal Elizabeth, but I do have a question. I am not sure how and why he was tried for heresy so late when people such as yourself were ordained far earlier and were out. Why was your bishop not tried for heresy, or all of the others? Seems odd to me.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Harvey - What I didn't say was that, you said those words to me when you interviewed me as I was applying to EDS. Scared the beejeesus out of me. I'm so very grateful I went to EDS. I'm not at all surprised that Walter went to EDS to support you. He was just that kind of pastor.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew, that's a good question. I have an answer, but it's my answer but I think 'the answer' is probably more complicated.

Indeed, lost of lesbian and gay people had been ordained for a very long time - it just wasn't done as publicly as Barry Stopfel and Robert Williams. These 10 bishops were being mean spirited - trying to get Jack Spong through Walter Righter.

That's the way it looked to me, anyway.

Paul said...

When I attended the Church of the Good Shepherd in Nashua, New Hampshire, members of the congregation pointed with considerable pride to a portrait of Righter, who had been a rector of that church. They told me all about the trial. (My next job was in Albuquerque, where the bishop was one of those prosecuting the trial.) I exchanged a couple of emails with the retired bishop after an introduction from some friends in Pittsburgh. I found him to be a gracious gentleman, but wished I could have known him in his prime. He was certainly well thought of in Nashua.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

He was much loved in Newark, too. He could be a bit of a curmudgeon at times but in a delightful way. I miss him so.