'He's following Jesus'

Last modified: 8/5/2012 12:00:00 AM

To some, Rob Hirschfeld may have seemed like a low-profile choice to succeed Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, as head of the Diocese of New Hampshire.

But in her sermon yesterday during Hirschfeld's consecration, the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas assured the congregation that while "he's white, he's a man and he's straight," the new bishop is anything but "safe."

"Rob is a person of prayer," Bullitt-Jonas said. "And anyone who returns day after day to the holy mountain of prayer and lets God's creative light pour into him or her day after day, that sort of person is going to be less and less satisfied with the status quo, less and less willing to settle for doing things the same old way because that's the way we've always done it."

Robinson, 65, announced his decision to retire in November 2010, in part because of the strain he felt as the first openly gay bishop in the worldwide Anglican church. He received several death threats during his nine-year tenure, and he wore a bulletproof vest to his own consecration in 2003.

A vote from clergy and lay members of the church elected Hirschfeld, 50, as the next

bishop in May. After his consecration yesterday, Hirschfeld will act as a "bishop coadjutor" when he starts in August, sharing the role with Robinson at the beginning of his tenure. Robinson is set to retire Jan. 5.

"Bishop Gene Robinson and the Diocese of New Hampshire have been courageous in bearing witness to the liberating love of God over the past nine years," she said. "I'm sure that when Gene announced his plan to retire, some people were hoping that in its next election of a bishop, the diocese would chose someone safe. Well, I've known and worked with Rob for a good long while, and I have to say he's not safe."

Her declaration was met with loud applause from the crowd of about 1,100 gathered yesterday at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord.

Bullitt-Jonas likened Hirschfeld's consecration to the upcoming Feast of the Transfiguration, which the Episcopal Church will officially observe tomorrow. The gospel reading at the consecration service told the story of the transfiguration when Jesus met the prophets Moses and Isaiah at the top of a mountain during prayer.

"In becoming a bishop, Rob is committing himself to his own path to transfiguration, not just for his own sake or for the salvation of his own soul, but also in service of the light that shines within you," she said.

Later in the service, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, examined Robinson's faith and explained to him the promises he was making as dioceses' new bishop. As Hirschfeld knelt in a simple white cassock, Jefferts Schori and a host of other bishops laid their hands on Hirschfeld's head in prayer.

After the prayer of consecration, Hirschfeld's wife and children presented him with his new vestments, the red robes of a bishop. Robinson handed the bishop's staff, shaped like a shepherd's crook, to his successor, and Hirschfeld beamed when Jefferts Schori officially presented him to the congregation.

"As wonderful and amazing as the welcome and the unique gifts I have noticed in the Diocese of New Hampshire from each of you that I've met, I feel that there is something more than the sum of our parts here today," Hirschfeld said. "Of course, that's what we believe when we gather in the name of Christ."

In the congregation, Paul and Linnae Peterson applauded heartily at the new bishop's first words in his office. The couple moved from Goffstown to Delaware 10 years ago, but they plan to return to New Hampshire this year and have followed the electoral process for the next bishop over the past few months.

Linnae attended a meet-and-greet session with the three candidates for election several months ago. Even then, she said Hirschfeld impressed her.

"I really liked Rob," she said. "He had a balance of direction and openness. . . . I think he's very aware of the variety of ministries in the diocese."

Robinson's nine years as bishop have been controversial ones, but Paul agreed Hirschfeld was far from a "safe" choice to appease critics who targeted the former bishop's sexual orientation.

"We're going from someone who is easily the most controversial bishop in the entire Anglican fellowship, and to someone who on the surface looks very ordinary," Paul said. "He's following Jesus, and you can't do that without shaking up the church."

Helen Gettelman drove to Concord from Portsmouth to witness the consecration. After talking with Hirschfeld at a meet-and-greet session in Exeter, she said she felt he was qualified for the job and had a "wicked sense of humor."

The bishop will face challenges with all types of social issues still under debate in the wider church, like the blessing of same-sex marriages and consecration of women, she said.

"Dealing with people, the Episcopal Church is an umbrella," Gettelman said. "There are many different kinds of people under that umbrella."

Hirschfeld is a 1983 graduate of Dartmouth College and completed a masters at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale in 1991. He previously served as a vice chaplain at Christ Church in New Haven, Conn., and most recently as the pastor of Grace Church in Amherst, Mass. He is married to Polly Ingraham, a teacher. Together, they have two sons and a daughter.

The Rev. Doug Fisher, the bishop-elect of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, attended the consecration with his wife, the Rev. Betsy Fisher. Their diocese in Massachusetts includes Hirschfeld's current parish in Amherst.

"It's a great moment for the Diocese of New Hampshire," she said. "It's a great moment for the world. It's always a great moment when a group of faithful people gets together."

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3316 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)


Updated on 8/5 to correct the spelling of  the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas's name. '

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