Episcopalians elect bishop

Last modified: 5/20/2012 12:00:00 AM
New Hampshire's Episcopalians yesterday elected a 50-year-old, straight, father of three to be the next bishop of the state diocese. The decision could allow the church to keep a lower profile after it set in motion a worldwide schism in the Anglican church by electing an openly gay bishop in 2003.

Robert Hirschfeld, of Grace Church in Amherst, Mass., was elected in a single ballot vote of both clergy and laity yesterday afternoon at St. Paul's Church on Centre Street. Hirschfeld is a 1983 graduate of Dartmouth College.

He will replace Bishop Gene Robinson, who announced in November 2010 that he would retire early next year.

Three candidates were under consideration and the next bishop needed a majority from both the laity and the clergy.

"Everybody is just overjoyed," said the Rev. Kevin Nichols of Hopkinton, who chaired the committee responsible for recruiting a new bishop.

Hirschfeld received 145 of the 252 votes cast - 54 from the clergy and 91 from the laity. It was the first time since 1905 that a bishop was elected on a single ballot, according to the diocese.

The other finalists were the Rev. Penelope "Penny" Bridges of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Great Falls, Va., and the Rev. Dr. William "Bill" Warwick Rich, senior associate rector of Trinity Church in Boston. Bridges is divorced, and Rich is in a same-sex marriage.

Reporters were not allowed to watch the service of Holy Communion during which the election was held. Neither were Hirschfeld or the other two candidates. But church officials said Hirschfeld addressed the assembled delegates via speakerphone shortly after the election and posted the news on his Facebook account shortly after that.

"God has been doing a good and holy work in New Hampshire, and I am deeply delighted to share in it," Hirschfeld said in a written statement released yesterday afternoon.

Robinson, laughing with well-wishers and sipping a Diet Coke outside the church, looked relaxed after the service.

"I'm delighted that the diocese is so clear," Robinson said, alluding to the wide margin of Hirschfeld's election. The election will require the approval of the national General Convention in July in Indiana. Officials said it is highly unlikely Hirschfeld's election would not be approved. Hirschfeld is likely to travel to the General Convention, said the Rev. Adrian Robbins-Cole, president of the diocese's committee responsible for new bishop.

Hirschfeld is expected to start in August as the diocese's "coadjutor" and learn the ropes directly from Robinson.

"I will love sharing the episcopate with Rob," said Robinson, who said the death threats and strain of the position were partially why he decided to retire.

Robinson's elevation eight years ago was so controversial that conservative groups splintered off and formed their own communities. Had Rich, the only finalist who was openly gay, been selected yesterday, some churchgoers were concerned what message that would have sent to Episcopalians around the world, said Mike Barwell, 59, of Hopkinton, one of the delegates who cast a vote yesterday.

"If we elected another gay bishop, what would that say to the larger Anglican community?" Barwell said, describing the sentiment among some delegates. After Robinson was elected, news agencies from around the world wanted his time, said Barwell, who helped manage the crush of press.

"Instantly it became a whirlwind," Barwell said. "And it never really stopped."

"Ordinarily a diocese isn't thrown into the limelight that way," said James Milliken, a financial adviser who lives in Concord and voted yesterday. "The rest of the world really put huge demands on Gene."

And yet, Milliken said, Robinson was "very much the bishop of New Hampshire," a man devoted to the spiritual well-being of those in his care.

"He never lost his focus on New Hampshire," Milliken said.

Hirschfeld will inherit a relatively healthy diocese both financially and spiritually. Its 2012 $1.7 million budget was a 4.25 percent increase over last year's, and where attendance at Episcopal churches nationwide has dropped, New Hampshire's has seen a roughly 1 percent increase. About 4,160 people attend church regularly on Sundays, according to diocesan records.

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

But the Episcopal church, like many other Christian denominations, faces an aging population and Hirschfeld, currently a father to teenage and college-age children and a pastor in a college town, is well qualified to help address those specific concerns, church officials said.

"To some extent we consider ourselves an aging denomination," said Margaret Porter, vice chairwoman of the search committee that vetted the applicants. She also voted yesterday.

"Churchwide, we are in a process of educating ourselves about what's meaningful to youth," she said.

Of about 1,200 New Hampshire churchgoers surveyed in 2010, only 4 percent were younger than 35, according to church documents.

During three "meet and greet" sessions attended by nearly 1,000 people earlier this month, Hirschfeld not only connected with his humor but convinced parishioners he could help them expand their ministry in new ways, Robbins-Cole said.

"We need to break out of the walls of the church and bring the message of God's love to the world," Robbins-Cole said.

Hirschfeld is married to Polly Ingraham, a teacher. Together, they have two sons and a daughter. Hirschfeld was born in Minnesota and grew up in Connecticut. He previously served as a vice chaplain at St. Mark's Chapel at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Conn., and was assistant priest at Christ Church in New Haven, Conn. He completed a masters at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale in 1991.

Robinson is set to retire Jan. 5.

While it can be easy to focus on practical matters when discussing an election, delegates said yesterday was a culmination of months of prayer and contemplation guided by God.

"There was a real joy in the air and atmosphere," Robbins-Cole said.

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




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