Editor’s note: this story was updated Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Veteran Baptist editor-turned-Episcopal priest Robert Dilday, 64, died unexpectedly during the weekend, his family and church announced Sunday.
They reported that he died in his sleep sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning in Richmond, Virginia. A medical examiner’s report said Dilday died of cardiac arrest, the family said.
Nancy Dilday Duck said her brother had been in good spirits and was energetic and highly engaged in church planning meetings earlier Saturday evening.
Learning of his death left the family “numb with shock and sadness,” she said.
Their father, former Southwestern Seminary president Russell Dilday, was “strong but heartbroken beyond words,” Duck said.
Dilday was just days into his new life as an Episcopal priest. He was ordained on Dec. 14 and began his role as assistant priest at St. Stephen’s the next day. He had been an active lay member of the church before ordination, serving in roles such as chalice bearer, subdeacon and jail minister.
As assistant priest, his duties were to include working with youth ministers and acolytes in addition to comprehensive food and environmental ministries. He was also to be active in a Sunday service designed especially for families with young children.
St. Stephen’s Rector Gary Jones said his assistant died doing what he felt called to do.
“When he came here as a priest he was as happy as he could be,” Jones said. “He had seemed to find his true calling at this stage in his life and working back at St. Stephen’s seemed to be a dream come true.”
In a statement, the parish said Dilday’s death “is a tremendous loss to St. Stephen’s, the larger church, and of course to his family.”
That larger church includes a broad spectrum of Baptist life stunned by the loss of a loyal friend and talented journalist, said David Wilkinson, executive director and publisher of BNG.
“He was a brilliant, principled and dedicated journalist, always committed to factual, truthful, fair-minded and substantive reporting,” Wilkinson said. “He represented the best type of independent, faith-based journalism.”
Dilday possessed an insatiable curiosity and a deep knowledge on topics ranging from history and theology to art and music. It all served him well as an editor and writer.
“He was also passionate about living out his faith through activism on behalf of LGBTQ rights and inclusivity and environmental, racial and economic justice,” Wilkinson said.
Dilday possessed a demeanor that brought clarity and emotional steadiness to the daily operations of the Herald, said retired Richmond pastor Mike Clingenpeel, a former editor and business manager at the publication, and a member of BNG’S board of directors.
“As a daily conversation partner in those years he sharpened my thinking on critical issues and made me a better editor and minister,” Clingenpeel said. “We have lost a trustworthy friend, and the Church has lost a faithful priest.”
Dilday ministered to those around him even as an editor.
“Working with him made me a better Christian because he had a gentle way of exposing and challenging my presuppositions,” former Herald editor Jim White said.
“The standards he set in journalistic objectivity are desperately needed in our country today,” he said.
Dilday took to social media the day after becoming a priest.
“Ordained to the priesthood yesterday, celebrated the Eucharist at three services this morning at St. Stephen’s in Richmond — two memorable days. Thanks be to God!” he posted on Facebook Dec. 15.
His enthusiasm for ministry was evident to those around him, said Weston Mathews, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in The Plains, Virginia.
“He had a faithful presence and showed up for people consistently and loved them in the way they needed to be loved. You could always count on him to show up and be a guiding light and a helping hand,” said Mathews, who co-founded and co-directed the Interfaith Alliance for Environmental Justice with Dilday.
“He was just a friend to all and he had such a patient and humble way about him,” Mathews added.
Dilday’s love for the worship of the Episcopal Church, his passion for social justice and compassion for people made him a strong candidate for the priesthood, said the Right Rev. Susan Goff, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.
Losing such a person so soon after his ordination — a rite she led for Dilday — and also so near to Christmas has been more than a lot of people can process, Goff said.
“I know the clergy in Richmond, who are closest to him, have hardly begun to process it yet. We are all in shock,” she said.
Duck praised her brother for the courage to answer his calling.
“Robert was so happy and excited about entering the priesthood, and all of us were happy for him and so proud of him for pursuing his vision for ministry,” she said.
Dilday is survived by his father, Russell Dilday, of Dallas; two sons, Harrison Dilday, of San Francisco, and Andrew Dilday, of New York City; two sisters, Nancy (Nolan) Dilday Duck, of Richardson, Texas, and Ellen (Shannon) Dilday Garrett of Brentwood, Tennessee; and two nieces and two nephews.
A memorial service will be held Saturday, Dec. 28 at 2 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 6000 Grove Ave., Richmond, Virginia.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions to the Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice, P.O. Box 184, The Plains, VA 20198. Donations also may be made online.