The Right Reverend Walter Dennis, 1932-2003
Bishop Dennis, a forward thinking priest and lawyer, was deeply committed to civil rights and the pursuit of justice and peace. He was the second African-American bishop in the Diocese of New York, serving from 1979 to 1998.
Dennis was born in Washington D.C. and held degrees from Virginia State, New York University, and General Theological Seminary. Ordained a deacon in 1956, Dennis began his ministry the same year that the Brown v. the Board of Education case put an end to legal segregation. His first appointment that year was as curate at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York; he was the first black American hired as clergy on the Cathedral’s staff. Ordained to the priesthood in 1958, Dennis’s early work was marked by his commitment to youth ministry, which he used to create forums, bible school, and conferences to bring white and black students together for the first time. From 1956 to 1960 he assisted the Reverend Tollie Caution, Secretary of Negro Work, in developing a series of conferences on race relations.
In 1960 Dennis answered the call to be vicar of St. Cyprian’s Church in Hampton where he was responsible for the establishment of the first interracial team ministry south of Washington D.C.. While serving at St. Cyprian’s, he opened the doors of the church to the freedom riders for civil rights. During that time he was also an adjunct professor of Constitutional Law and American History at Hampton University.
He returned to St. John’s as a Canon Residentiary in 1965. While at the Cathedral, Dennis convened conferences to address the difficult moral and ethical questions of the day including extremism and politics, homosexuality, racism, bio-medical ethics, abortion, abolition of the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, and divorce reform. It was at one of these conferences that Dennis brought together white southern rectors and Thurgood Marshall, who was later appointed the first black member of the United States Supreme Court.
Bishop Dennis was one of the Episcopal lawyers and clergy who founded the Guild of St. Ives, created in 1966 to provide legal assistance to Episcopalians and examine legal matters of importance to the Church. He was also a founding member of the Union of Black Episcopalians in 1968, a national organization of African-American clergy and laity.
Elected Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of New York in 1979, his first responsibility focused on ministry development and the delineation of the ordination process. Serving as bishop, Dennis became active in the national and international church. He chaired the Church’s Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons from 1982 to 1994 becoming known nationally for his writings on the issues facing General Convention. In 1985 he was elected to the board of the Episcopal Black Ministries Commission (now the Office of Black Ministries).
Bishop Dennis was also active on the national board of Planned Parenthood, Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity (ESCRU), the National Association for the Study for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and the Society for Juvenile Justice.
In 1995 Dennis was elected vice president of Province II, and two years later he was appointed to the Standing Commission on Structure. He held the position of Bishop Suffragan until 1998. Bishop Dennis was a voice for social justice and those under-represented. He lived his life dedicated to the pursuit of equality.
His personal papers are located at The Archives of the Episcopal Church. [Sources]