Bishop finalists selected

Last modified: 3/18/2012 12:00:00 AM
As the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion prepares to retire early next year, the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire has announced the names of the three finalists to succeed him.

Gene Robinson, who was consecrated bishop in 2003, announced in November 2010 that he'd retire in 2013, in part because of the stress and death threats he's received since he became the leader of the Episcopalian community in New Hampshire.

The finalists to replace Robinson, 64, are the Rev. Penelope 'Penny' Bridges of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Great Falls, Va.; the Rev. Robert 'Rob' Hirschfeld of Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, Mass.; and the Rev. Dr. William 'Bill' Warwick Rich, senior associate rector of Trinity Church in Boston.

'All of us are really excited about these three candidates,' said the Rev. Adrian Robbins-Cole, president of the diocese's committee responsible for new bishops. 'I think any of them would be great.'

The Diocese of New Hampshire posted the position in October 2011, and a committee of clergy and lay people screened candidates from November until this month. Late last week, it released the names and biographies of the finalists. It also released excerpts from the applications submitted by the finalists.

Robinson's elevation eight years ago was so controversial that more traditional factions splintered off and formed their own communities. But in their statements, all three potential successors said they felt Robinson's election will ultimately strengthen their church. One of them, Rich, is himself gay.

'When our church tries to avoid conflict by shying away from the work of social justice, we lose the possibility of offering a compelling narrative, and membership declines,' Bridges, 53, wrote in her application. 'New Hampshire is living by example in embracing the gifts of all people; this example is to be nurtured.'

Hirschfeld, 51, likened Robinson's election to the miraculous parting of the Red Sea during the Exodus from Egypt. Just as water parted into two walls and someone had to take the brave, first step between them, the Episcopal church was divided between the old way and new way of doing things.

'It seems to me that something in our Church has been split wide open for all God's children to step in,' Hirschfeld wrote. 'And it happened in Hew Hampshire, and the good people of your diocese bravely, miraculously set forth.'

Hirschfeld also described starting a 'wedding fast' at his church five years ago. In it, he asked for support in a 'moratorium on presiding at any wedding until we came to some resolution about the jarring practice of performing weddings for heterosexual persons . . . while maintaining that homosexuals are disqualified from such blessings.'

More than a decade before Hirschfeld refused to perform marriages for heterosexual couples, Rich, 59, was 'raked over the coals' for presiding at a 'holy union' of two lesbians at Memorial Episcopal Church in Baltimore in 1992.

Rich said he was 'careful to obtain all the necessary permissions to do this, including tacit permission to 'do what you think is best pastorally' from the bishop.' But several months later 'The Baltimore Sun got wind of what had happened' and ran a page one story about it.

Rich said he was 'raked over the coals' for the marriage and subjected to a 'formal trial' by the Episcopal Church. Rich, who also has a doctorate in psychology, said that he was exonerated at the trial and that the conflict forced the clergy in his diocese to 'face an issue that many would have preferred to avoid.'

'This helped strengthen the gay and lesbian caucus among the clergy in the Diocese,' Rich wrote.

Although she was born in Ireland, Bridges said taking the helm in New Hampshire would be a bit of a homecoming because she was active at Grace Church in Manchester for nine years. She said her call to the priesthood was 'closely entwined' with her call to motherhood and that her 'primary spiritual gift is that of pastor or shepherd.' She ranked first in her class at Yale Divinity School and has been a pastor in Virginia since 2003.

'Some of the most powerful moments of my ministry have occurred when I have shown up in response to a difficult situation: a death, a criminal act, a broken relationship,' she wrote. 'As your Bishop, I would show up.'

Hirschfeld said he felt abandoned by God earlier in his life before sensing that God's presence is 'infinitely larger' than his doubts, 'adolescent rages' and injuries. He wrote of the pain he felt from a parent's alcoholism, his sister's death and 'the collapse of an early marriage.'

'For each of these sorrows, I have been sent blessings more than I could have desired or deserved,' he wrote.

Rich also shared his experience of isolation from God and eventual return to the church. A 'Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado,' Rich said the Diocese of New Hampshire will become 'browner, younger, greener and leaner.'

'A generation of older Episcopalians - like me - will make space for a younger church that will have different values than the church of today,' he wrote. 'In particular, the new generation . . . will place less value on doctrinal niceties and greater emphasis on hands-on ministries that incarnate Christ's kingdom.'

Rich is married to Don Schiermer, a physician. Bridges is divorced and Hirschfeld has been married to his wife, Polly, for 21 years.

The diocese will hold sessions for members of the Episcopal Church to meet the finalists in early May. On Saturday, May 19, a group about 275 lay and clergy will vote for a successor. That person will receive final consent from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in July and be consecrated Aug. 4 at St. Paul's Church in Concord.

Robinson will stay on until January 2013.

'During that time the new bishop will be learning the ropes,' Robbins-Cole said.

The new bishop will inherit a fairly stable and healthy diocese, according to church records.

The committees responsible for the diocese's finances said the 2012, $1.7 million budget was a 4.25 percent increase over last year's.

'Even in a tight economy, the Diocese of New Hampshire maintains a balanced budget,' officials wrote in a document released for the recruitment of a new bishop. 'This has entailed difficult changes, such as staffing cuts and leaner programming.'

Meanwhile, where attendance has dropped at Episcopal churches across the United States, the parishes in New Hampshire have seen a roughly 1 percent increase in the 4,160 people who regularly attend church on Sundays.

'Compared to a lot of dioceses in the Episcopal Church, where they've seen noticeable declines, in New Hampshire it's gone up,' Robbins-Cole said.

Established as a part of the Diocese of Massachusetts, the Diocese of Manchester has stood on its own since 1844 and has a long history of progressive activism with women and minority rights.

It is a tradition of social justice the finalists seem eager to continue, and Robbins-Cole said his community is eager to select a bishop to lead them.

'I think all of us are really excited about these three candidates,' he said. 'We'll just see, you know, what . . . the Holy Spirit leads different people to vote for in the election.'

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)




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