- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

Amidst the worldwide furor over the death of one pope and the election of another, one of the best-known figures in Washington’s evangelical Christian community quietly died April 18 of colon cancer.

The passing of Diane Knippers, 53, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, came as a surprise. Friends and family say that even two days before her death on a Monday afternoon, she thought she was checking into the hospital only for a quick surgery. But she slipped away.

As a rule, evangelicals around Washington shun publicity. There are a few in the media spotlight, but they are surrounded by a silent and hidden majority. However, several hundred of them — including two Episcopal bishops — showed up for her April 23 funeral at Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax to say goodbye.

Judging from the praise heaped on her during the two-hour service, Diane was a woman of grace who survived without rancor many personal attacks heaped on her by irate church officials of various denominations.

Mrs. Knippers’ commitment to “church reform” meant being a burr under the saddle of mainline Protestant leaders she felt did not adhere to their churches’ biblical roots. That won her not a few enemies. Their opposition only energized her fight against such developments as feminist theology to Sudan’s anti-Christian persecution to the June 2003 election of V. Gene Robinson as the world’s first openly homosexual Episcopal bishop.

The cancer that ultimately took Diane first became apparent about two years ago. Even before Bishop Robinson was confirmed Aug. 5, 2003, by the Episcopal General Convention and consecrated that November, she knew she was seriously ill.

Her failing health followed the declining fortunes of the Episcopal Church, which began losing members and money, not to mention precipitating a worldwide split in its parent body, the 70-million-member Anglican Communion.

One of Diane’s last journeys was to Ireland in February as Anglican archbishops from around the world mulled how to punish the U.S. Episcopalians for the Robinson election and their Canadian counterparts for allowing same-sex “marriages.” Diane and five other Episcopal leaders met with the archbishops, who in turn asked the American and Canadian archbishops to remove themselves from a key Anglican governing council until they decide whether to toe the official line on homosexuality or form a separate church.

Apparently the sextet from America was a bit too effective for Presiding Episcopal Bishop Frank Griswold, who in a speech to fellow Episcopal bishops in March likened the group to the devil. The other five group members shrugged off the insult, but it got to Diane, who struck back with a March 23 essay: “Bishop Griswold should resign.” Eulogists at Diane’s funeral less than a month later delicately refrained from mentioning the presiding bishop by name. But veiled references abounded regarding attacks from leaders in her own church.

One saving grace in recent months was Time magazine’s Feb. 7 ranking of Diane as No. 4 among America’s 25 most influential evangelical leaders. There were four women on this list, but two were linked with their husbands. Only Diane and evangelist Joyce Meyer stood on their own merits.

Not that Diane’s artist husband, Ed Knippers was a shrinking violet. His striking paintings of Christ and other biblical figures in the nude amazed and infuriated fellow evangelicals. The raw physicality of his work may have earned him an exhibit spot in Union Station a few years ago but it was next to impossible, he would admit wryly, to get his work hanged in most churches.

The Knipperses were definitely not your cookie-cutter evangelical couple. At the reception following the funeral, a number of reporters who had covered Diane found ourselves congregating next to a plate of peanut butter cookies. In a conservative religious group where top women were relatively rare, Diane, we agreed, would be hard to replace.

Others at the funeral spoke of her as a Protestant saint who, like the late pope, may have watched from one of heaven’s windows over the worldwide activities during the week she died. Diane, her husband joked, was obviously using her lobbying skills in heaven in that within 24 hours of her passing, she helped ensure election of an orthodox, conservative pope.

She must have enjoyed being part of that.

Julia Duin is chief religion writer for The Washington Times.

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