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Episcopalians Get a Chance to Decide What a Bishop Should Be


Visiting Baltimore in 1992, Archbishop of Canterbury George L. Carey gleefully quoted H. L. Mencken's famous put-down of bishops. They are, in Mencken's satirical definition, Christian ecclesiastics "of a rank superior to that attained by Christ."

It was Archbishop Carey's first official visit to the United States as spiritual leader of the world's 29 Anglican branches, including this nation's Episcopal Church. Invoking the Sage of Baltimore, he told the nearly 200 Episcopal bishops meeting here: "We often take ourselves far too seriously. We are merely servants of the living God."

But the guiding and teaching functions of their ancient office do require discernment, sensitivity and hard work, the archbishop reminded them. "Episcopal authority is not given so that we might dispense answers to every question," he said. "But it is given so that you and I might direct people to Jesus Christ, who is the way, the truth and life itself."

It's a tall enough order.

The clergy and voting lay delegates of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland are about to begin an intensive eight-week process of deciding who should be their 13th bishop. (The 12th bishop, the Right Rev. A. Theodore Eastman, retired at the beginning of last year.) The diocesan election is scheduled for May 20 in Frostburg.

A search committee that began with the names of 150 prospects last summer recently narrowed the list to five nominees -- four men and a woman -- who say they are ready for the job. These priests have agreed to submit to questions from Maryland Episcopalians at face-to-face meetings March 25, 26 and 27 in Severna Park, Cumberland and Baltimore.

The nominees' education, record of experience, personality -- probably even their appearance -- will be weighed at those sessions, along with the way each responds to interrogation. In the meantime, what each has written about "the role of a bishop" will be studied closely. Only one is well-known to Maryland Episcopalians. The Rev. William P. Baxter Jr., the 52-year-old rector of St. Thomas' Church in Garrison, says that as Bishop Eastman's successor he would "honor the distinctive heritage of faith and witness which has shaped us in this diocese, while proclaiming boldly the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a new century."

In what amount to their campaign statements, all five nominees steer clear of the specifics of a long-simmering theological dispute in the Episcopal Church and other Christian churches over the ordinations of sexually active gays and lesbians.

It is a controversy that has split the denomination nationally and locally. Last month, 10 Episcopal bishops, citing a 1979 General Convention resolution that ordination of "a practicing homosexual" is "not appropriate," formally charged a retired bishop of Iowa with violating this doctrinal directive when he was an assistant bishop in Newark, N.J.

More letters of presentment, as the charges are called, seeking the disciplining or even expulsion of additional bishops are expected.

Father Baxter hints at the tensions and a need for reconciliation. "To be a bishop," he said, "is to empower and call forth the ministries of lay people, deacons and priests and to serve them as a shepherd with compassion, conscience and common sense. In this vocation, I would hope to call us all to practice hospitality one to another and to those we serve in Jesus' name."

But Father Baxter is not alone. The need to reconcile religious differences is a priority for the four nominees from outside the Maryland diocese as well.

* The Rev. James A. Diamond, 49, rector of Christ Church in Andover, Mass., said: "To be a pastor, a bishop needs to be accessible, compassionate, respectful of confidentiality, nonjudgmental and willing to be truthful. I believe a bishop must be a very patient listener, particularly when there is disagreement or conflict.

"If one is able to listen through anger and harshness, one often can hear the unmet hope that lies at the other side of controversy. When this hope is articulated, reconciliation can begin."

Stressing 'dialogue'

* The Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, 53, rector of Grace Church in Madison, N.J., said: "As a communicator, the bishop fosters dialogue among people of sharply differing points of view. . . . Out of honest, sometimes heated, dialogue, the 'mind of Christ' for the church may emerge with greater clarity.

"To be effective in this, a bishop must be experienced in and comfortable with conflict management."

* The Rev. Canon Patricia M. Thomas, 58, administrator of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., said: "For the past three years, I have engaged in ministry at the episcopal level, working with mission development, strategic planning, public relations and communications, various kinds of training of clergy and laity, trouble shooting and conflict resolution, and networking at diocesan, regional and parochial levels.

"I am familiar with the workings of a large, multicultural, (x multiracial diocese, and I am committed to team building for ministry and to a collegial style."

* The Very Rev. Gustave J. Weltsek Jr., 59, dean of St. John's Cathedral in Jacksonville, Fla., who chairs the Racism and Reconciliation Committee of the Diocese of Florida, said: "Bishops . . . are to be bridge builders, reaching across the chasm between people -- between poor and rich, hungry and full, weeping and laughing, rejected and accepted.

"They are to establish authentic relationships based on genuine care and commitment, and they are to approach everyone who comes to them in a spirit of reconciliation and hope, not in a spirit of condemnation and rejection."

The Rev. David E. Crossley, who was co-chairman of the diocesan search committee that probed the qualifications and views of the prospective nominees behind closed doors, determined that the five finalists "represent a spectrum of gifts and experience and are in the broad middle of the church." All are married, with children.

Others possible

But the voting delegates to the May 20 convention will not necessarily be limited to the five nominees.

Some Maryland Episcopalians are discussing the possibility of adding an African-American to the list, and some traditionalists would like to see a more theologically conservative candidate.

The rules will allow nominations from the floor, but they are being discouraged. One reason for relying on a search committee of clergy and laity and for limiting the number of nominees to five was to try to avoid what happened in 1926.

Without any advance screening, 14 clergymen were nominated from the floor that year. Although the Rev. Edward T. Helfenstein eventually emerged as the favorite, he still did not have quite enough votes after 18 ballots.

The convention adjourned without an election, and not until after it reconvened seven months later did Dr. Helfenstein become the eighth Episcopal bishop of Maryland.

Advice from Lutherans

This month's magazine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which will elect at least 38 bishops in 1995, discusses at length the qualities they should possess. A suggested prerequisite for a Lutheran bishop is a sense of humor.

Whether the five nominees of Maryland's Episcopal diocese would appreciate Mencken's barbs as much as the archbishop of Canterbury did is not certain, but at least one -- Father Ihloff -- provides a clue. "The bishop must have a sense of humor," he said.

Frank P. L. Somerville is the religion reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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