The Right Reverend David K. Leighton, Sr.
The Right Reverend David K. Leighton, Sr. (Handout)

The Right Rev. David Keller Leighton Sr., the former Episcopal bishop of Maryland who ordained his diocese's first woman priest and led other church reforms, died of respiratory complications Wednesday at Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville, an institution he helped found. He was 91.

"He helped bring the church out of the country club," said the present Episcopal bishop, the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton. "He aided the homeless, the poor and the marginalized, African-Americans and, of course, women. There are many trees in the forest, and some are grander than others. A great oak has fallen."


Born in Pittsburgh, Pa., Bishop Leighton was the son of Frank Kingsley Leighton and the former Irene Keller. His father was a Buick dealer, and his mother was a nurse and homemaker. He was a sergeant major paymaster in the Army Air Forces and served in the China-Burma-India theater and in Europe and the Middle East during World War II.

"He never grew up wanting to be in the priesthood. During his time in the service, he came in contact with a Roman Catholic chaplain," said his daughter, Charlotte Leighton of Fort Collins, Colo. "The experience stayed with him and kept nagging. He asked, 'How can I serve in a ministerial way?' "

He earned a bachelor's degree in advertising at Northwestern University and became an assistant employment manager at a General Motors stamping plant. At age 32, he decided to pursue a career in ministry. He attended Virginia Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1955. He received a doctor of divinity degree in 1969.

He served two Pittsburgh churches and moved to Baltimore in 1959 to the Church of the Holy Nativity on Garrison Boulevard in Forest Park.

He also participated in demonstrations to integrate Gwynn Oak Park in 1963. He joined in ecumenical movements with Cardinal Lawrence Shehan and was a Vietnam War opponent.

According to a diocesan biography, he served in Northwest Baltimore for four years before being appointed archdeacon of Maryland. In 1968, he was elected bishop coadjutor and was consecrated at Emmanuel Church in downtown Baltimore. In early 1972 he became the 11th bishop of Maryland and was installed at the Columbia Interfaith Center, in the then-new community where he took a lively interest in ecumenical affairs.

Colleagues said his most controversial act was ordaining the Rev. Phebe C. McPherson in December 1977. She was the first-ever woman priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. She gave Bishop Leighton purple wool socks that he wore to the ordination so he would not suffer cold feet.

"He and I had a special relationship," said Ms. McPherson, rector of Epiphany Church in Odenton. "It was close and personal. When I needed to have counsel, I went to him. I was young when I was ordained, and I thought of him as my spiritual father. He called me 'Phebe Baby.' "

The ordination of women was approved by the Episcopal General Convention in 1976. According to a 1999 Baltimore Sun article, Ms. McPherson called upon Bishop Leighton, who agreed to her ordination.

"To bring this other element into the ministry really was completing," said Bishop Leighton in 1999. "If the ministry is trying to show forth who God is, we were lacking half of who God is, because he created us both male and female in his image, Genesis says."

The 1999 Sun article said in the days before the ordination took place, Bishop Leighton faced opposition rooted in both Scripture and tradition. "Jesus was male and chose men as his apostles," the article said. "But most Protestant denominations in the United States had already decided that women could be ministers."

Bishop Leighton recalled the events: "We had a lot of clergy who were threatening to boycott the ordination and protest and come with banners and cause a riot," he said in 1999. "As it turned out, it was very quiet, beautiful and serene. But the atmosphere before that was terrifying."

A biography supplied by the Episcopal Diocese said the bishop "possessed organizational skills from his days as a business executive, along with a vision of a modern, inclusive church. His commitment to ecumenical relations, Book of Common Prayer and Hymnal revisions, and the ordination of women reflected these visions."

He had been vice president of the old Church Home and Hospital in East Baltimore for 16 years. He was chairman of the board of the Episcopal Ministries to the Aging, a teacher of sacred studies at St. Paul's School and was chairman of the board of Hannah More Academy in Reisterstown. He also sat on the board of St. Timothy's School in Stevenson and was chairman of the board of St. James School in Hagerstown.


Bishop Leighton was one of the founders of Columbia Cooperative Ministry. He also served for a decade in the Ecumenical Institute of Theology at St. Mary's Seminary & University in Baltimore.

In a memoir, Bishop Leighton said, "I have certainly seen the church change rapidly, from just six women on the vestry to many women in the pulpit. I believe that these changes have been done in the name of God and his belief in inclusiveness for all his children."

In retirement, he moved to an old farmhouse in the Blue Ridge Mountains at Greenwood, Va., and later lived in Annapolis.

A funeral service will be held at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, 4 E. University Parkway.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 68 years, the former Carolyn Smith; a son, David K. Leighton Jr. of Soquel, Calif.; another daughter, Nancy Koenig of Scottsville, Va.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.