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Robert DeWitt; led way for female reverends

Bishop Robert L. DeWitt, whose unapproved ordination of 11 women into the Episcopal Church of the United States opened doors to thousands of women who have since become priests, died Nov. 21 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He was 87.

 

The fallout from the ordination roiled the Episcopal Church, from its leadership to its laity. For Bishop DeWitt, his role capped a career of quietly confronting contentious issues head-on.

As bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania for more than a decade, he was a tireless advocate of civil rights and a foe of the Vietnam War. In the process, Bishop DeWitt, though rather slight in stature and mild in demeanor, cut a high profile.

He was "a lightning rod for people who loved to hate," longtime friend and colleague Charles Ritchie of Saranac Lake, N.Y., said yesterday.

The ordination occurred in 1974, near the end of Bishop DeWitt's tenure in Philadelphia. He was one of three bishops who ordained a group of women called the "Philadelphia 11" without seeking the blessing of church officials. Although he immediately was denounced by some officials, the action helped lead to the church's 1976 reversal of a ban on women in the priesthood. In 1989, the Rev. Barbara C. Harris became the first female bishop, elected to serve the Massachusetts diocese.

A native of Jamaica Plain, Bishop DeWitt had long displayed a penchant for going against the grain, friends and relatives said. Although he came from a family of small-business owners, he chose the priesthood.

"Dad was a renegade to go to seminary," his daughter Kathrina DeWitt Yost, of Philadelphia, said.

He graduated from Amherst College in 1937 and was ordained in 1940 after attending the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge.

For four years, he was suffragan bishop in Michigan before being elected bishop coadjutor of the Pennsylvania diocese in 1964.

Two weeks into the job, his predecessor died of a heart attack, and Bishop DeWitt became the youngest person to be elected bishop in that diocese.

Soon after the election, tensions flared into race riots in Chester, and Bishop DeWitt banged on the doors of Governor William Scranton's residence around midnight, along with Jefferson Fordham, dean of the University of Pennsylvania law school, demanding that he intervene.

In his efforts to end the Vietnam War, Bishop DeWitt drew fire for hiring the Rev. David Gracie to counsel young men attempting to avoid the draft.

Although such actions were unsettling to some in the church's heirarchy, he was steadfast in his commitment to the church's principles.

"He loved the Episcopal Church because of the church's ability to respond to the human condition," said his daughter Rebecca of Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

In the 1970s, Bishop DeWitt was a leading participant in the debate over the role of women in worship. "He was soft and convincing. He was strong, but he was not an aggressive person," Rebecca DeWitt said.

The debate, however, became so intense, he was forced him to seek police protection. The ordination took place amid intense security; buckets of water lined the aisles in case threats to firebomb the church were carried out.

"He was almost kicked out of the church for heresy," Rebecca DeWitt said. Church officials censured Bishop DeWitt and his colleagues in the ceremony, Bishop Edward Welles of Missouri and Bishop Daniel Corrigan of California. In a 1999 ceremony marking the church's reversal on women serving in leadership, he credited the 11 "pioneering women" for effecting change. "Make no mistake: the event was a creative action of, by, and for women. The bishops were only accessories."

Relatively small in size, "he was a very simple man," Ritchie said. "Very full of humility, and he just knew better than most people the difference between right and wrong and fairness and unfairness. He felt that there was no biblical argument that carried water about either women or homosexuality."

Bishop DeWitt rejoiced in the recent election of Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who is gay. "He said, `You know, I thought it was the Episcopal Church at its best,' " Ritchie said.

After retiring from the helm of the Pennsylvania diocese, Bishop DeWitt became editor of a national ecumenical journal, The Witness. "He gave it an enormous amount of spirit, and indeed it became an effective voice," Ritchie said.

He retired from that post in 1981 and returned to the small Maine community, Isle au Haut, where he had first spoken from a pulpit. In retirement, he helped lobstermen haul in traps, toss back the little lobsters, and store the larger ones until prices were optimal.

He also spent much of his time writing songs.

Although he often preferred a baseball cap, bluejeans, and knee-high boots around town, he looked regal in full vestments, carrying a shepherd's staff, Rebecca DeWitt said.

In 2001, his book "Ebb Tide" was published, describing how he coped with his wife's Alzheimer's disease.

He also had a lighter side, and had "a very periodically corny sense of humor," Kathrina Yost said.

In addition to his daughters, Bishop DeWitt leaves his wife of 64 years, Barbara (DeYoe); three sons, Laurence of Bethlehem, N.Y, John and Robert, both of Isle au Haut, Maine; 14 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned for the spring.

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