Bishop Leighton remembered as feisty shepherd

The Episcopal Church in Maryland celebrated the life of its 11th bishop with all the formality and ceremony of a cathedral funeral Saturday, while remembering a man known as a fierce champion for society's outsiders.

"Bishop David Leighton knew the burden of being a shepherd," said the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, the current bishop. "He experienced many times the hatred, bitterness and rejection that comes with the office whenever he stood up for those whom society wanted to neglect, or keep outside of the power structures in the church."

The two-hour funeral for the Right Rev. David Keller Leighton Sr. was held at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood. Leighton, 91, died of respiratory complications at Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville on August 7.

Leighton had been cremated ahead of the morning services, and his ashes were displayed in a box on a pedestal in the cathedral, with his miter laid at their side. His family, who declined to be interviewed, committed the bishop's remains in a private ceremony Saturday afternoon.

Before the ceremony began, clergy from across Maryland flocked into the cathedral dressed in flowing white albs; among them were many women, including the Rev. Phebe C. McPherson. Leighton ordained her as the first female priest in Maryland in 1977 — a move described as his most controversial in office.

Through a biblical reading and Sutton's sermon, the service reflected on Leighton's role as the "good shepherd" of his community.

Sutton said that in Jesus' lifetime shepherds were widely despised — he compared their status in society to that of "hustlers" on the streets of Park Heights. Sutton said Leighton embodied that tradition in his willingness to expand the embrace of the church and to confront those who criticized his opposition to the Vietnam War and his welcoming of women into the ministry.

"He knew that if he were to be the bishop of all the people, then he would have to make a special effort to become the shepherd of the least, the lost, the forgotten of his fold," Sutton said. "In his ministry he would make no peace with oppression, and that sometimes cost him dearly in friends and in money, for himself and for the diocese.

"But he was the good shepherd. Like his Lord, Bishop Leighton was willing to lay down his life for the sheep."

Leighton, who became diocesan bishop in 1972, showed from the start a willingness to break with tradition. According to an official biography, Leighton's stepping up to the office was marked with a ceremony featuring "balloons, youth as clowns, much music and a photo slide show."

"He could be fun, and he could be feisty," Sutton said.

Despite his independent streak, Sutton said, Leighton understood leadership to be a conversation.

"A good shepherd knows that his or her leading the sheep is a matter of both hearing and calling, of speaking and listening," Sutton said.

Leighton retired in 1985 but remained active in the church. Sutton remarked on the close relationships with his successor bishops, who attended the ceremony robed in red, and credited Leighton with paving the way for him to become first African-American to hold the office in Maryland.

Leighton's family carried his ashes out of the cathedral to the sound of an improvisation on "Ode to Joy."

"He has heard the voice of his good shepherd," Sutton said. "And he has gone home to be with him."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad