Veteran Baptist editor-turned-Episcopal priest Robert Dilday, 64, and son of Russell Dilday, former president of Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth, died unexpectedly during the weekend, his family and church announced Sunday, Dec. 22.
They reported that he died in his sleep sometime Saturday night or Sunday morning in Richmond, Virginia.
His parish, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, cited “natural causes” while his family awaits a medical examiner report for the official cause of death.
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.
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.
“His death is a tremendous loss to St. Stephen’s, the larger church, and of course to his family,” the parish said.
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.
Dilday’s career before the priesthood included serving 27 years as the managing editor of the Religious Herald newspaper in Richmond, and as editor-in-chief of Baptist News Global from 2014 to 2018.
“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.
Dilday’s talents as a journalist will be as sorely missed as his pastoral qualities, White added.
“The standards he set in journalistic objectivity are desperately needed in our country today,” he said.
Dilday took to social media days before his ordination to share his excitement.
“I’m so very grateful for the many people who have supported and affirmed me through the process of discernment and formation,” he said in a Nov. 25 post. “Everyone who is able to attend the service is enthusiastically welcomed! And if you’re unable to do so, I’d very much value your prayers on that day.”
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.
He is survived by his father, sons Harrison and Andrew Dilday, and sisters Nancy Duck and Ellen Garrett.
Russell Dilday, Duck said, is “strong but heartbroken beyond words.”
Information on services is pending.