Rev. Robert L. DeWitt, the former bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania who was censured for ordaining women into the priesthood two years before the Episcopal Church authorized it, died on Nov. 21 of congestive heart failure. He was 87.
DeWitt graduated from Amherst College in 1937, attended the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, and was ordained in 1940. He spent four years as the suffragan bishop in Michigan before being elected bishop coadjutor of the Pennsylvania diocese in 1964. Two weeks into the job, his predecessor died, making DeWitt the youngest person to be elected bishop in that diocese.
For the next decade, DeWitt was a tireless advocate of civil rights. He demonstrated for racial equality and protested against the Vietnam War. Then in 1974, he and two other bishops ordained 11 women into the priesthood at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. Done without official authorization, the Episcopal Church of the United States censured DeWitt and his colleagues, Bishop Edward Welles of Missouri and Bishop Daniel Corrigan of California. Church leaders also threatened to excommunicate the women. After two years of fierce debate, however, the ordinations of the “Philadelphia 11” were declared valid in 1976.
DeWitt retired from the church, and spent several years working as the editor of The Witness, and as president of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company. In 2001, he published “Ebb Tide,” a book describing his wife’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease.