With mostly soft and a few hard questions, Maryland Episcopalians gently probed the beliefs and personalities of their five nominees for bishop the past two days, with the result that some theological differences among the candidates have emerged.
Only one, the Very Rev. Gustave J. Weltsek Jr., dean of St. John's Cathedral in Jacksonville, Fla., waded into controversy without being pushed at an open forum Saturday night in Severna Park.
Volunteering that he wanted the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland to know precisely where he stood concerning a question on people's minds even if it weren't being asked -- whether he favors ordaining gays and lesbians -- Dean Weltsek said, "I feel very strongly about the place of the General Convention in the life of the church."
Because this national convention of clergy and laity, "which speaks the mind of the church every three years," has not dropped its opposition to noncelibate homosexuality despite intensive lobbying for the change, "We ought not to ordain practicing gays," the dean stated flatly.
He said he knows and works with effective clergy who are openly homosexual. St. John's Cathedral, which chose to remain in the troubled inner city of Jacksonville, has a strong, caring mission to AIDS patients, he noted.
But good people should not become priests "because they are gay, but because of other qualities," he said in a sharp exchange with a Maryland clergyman who was defending homosexuals' ordinations and the blessing of same-sex unions.
59, Dean Weltsek is the oldest among the four men and one woman nominated by a search committee to be the 13th Episcopal bishop of Maryland.
The youngest of the candidates, the Rev. James A. Diamond, 49, rector of a parish in Andover, Mass., said he had trouble giving a clear "yes or no" answer to the question on ordaining homosexuals.
He pointed out that, as bishop of Maryland, he would not be asked to ordain an openly gay or lesbian person until after a screening and educational process establishing that individual's qualifications for the priesthood.
Faced with such a dilemma, Father Diamond said, "I would go to the House of Bishops and tell them that we have to wrestle this thing through."
The 11th and 12th bishops of Maryland, the Right Rev. David K. Leighton Sr., who retired in 1986, and the Right Rev. A. Theodore Eastman, who retired last year, were among the nearly 150 Episcopalians at Saturday night's four-hour forum at St. Martin's-in-the-Field Church on Benfield Road.
It was the first of the three question-and-answer sessions with the nominees to which all Episcopalians in the diocese were invited. The second was last night at Emmanuel Church in Cumberland.
The final opportunity to quiz the candidates before the May 20 election in Frostburg will be from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. today at North Baltimore's Church of the Redeemer, Charles Street and Melrose Avenue.
While a variety of queries produced a variety of answers, all five nominees responded similarly to a question from a Western Maryland resident: Do they believe that Jesus said -- and do they agree -- that he is "the way, the truth and the life" and that salvation comes through him?
"I believe Jesus said it, and I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe it," replied the Rev. William P. Baxter Jr., 52-year-old rector of St. Thomas Church, Garrison Forest, the only priest of the Maryland diocese among the nominees.
But like the other four, Father Baxter elaborated on his answer. In a reference to the Old Testament, he described the importance of Jewish-Christian dialogue as a "burning bush" he discovered relatively late in life.
He found that he "had a lot of unlearning to do," Father Baxter said, "and my encounter with the Jewish people has deepened my faith."
Dean Weltsek, who said he wore a leather jacket and carried a switchblade knife growing up on the streets of New York, attributed the discovery of his faith to the influence of good Christians, not to reading Scripture. "I think God chooses the way he touches people's lives, and I believe that's biblical," the dean said.
About the "way, the truth and the life" quotation from John's Gospel, the Rev. Canon Patricia M. Thomas, 58, an administrator of the Diocese of Washington, D.C., and the one woman among the candidates, pondered for some time before replying that she agreed with it.
She then added, "Scripture really is a story about how human beings have understood God through many centuries. I do not believe every word of Scripture, but I believe the New Testament contains all we need for salvation."
Canon Thomas criticized strongly a group of Episcopal bishops who formally charged a retired Iowa bishop with violating the doctrinal directive against ordaining gays. The 10 bishops have promised further action, including similar charges against Bishop Ronald H. Haines of Washington.
"For the good of the church, they should let it go, get on with proclaiming the Good News [the Christian Gospel]," she said. "We are all children of God."
The fifth nominee, the Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, 53, is rector of a church in the diocese of Newark, N.J., where controversial Bishop John S. Spong is an outspoken advocate of ordaining gays and lesbians and blessing their sexual relationships. Father Ihloff, in reply to questions about this, said, "I have a different focus from the bishop of Newark. He's a good friend, but I will not let my personal agenda become the agenda of the diocese."
Homosexuality in the clergy is a "thorny issue" that needs "considerably more dialogue," said Father Ihloff, who described himself as "good at conflict management."
The five nominees are married, with children.
The Rev. David E. Crossley, the rector of St. David's Church in Roland Park who co-chaired the search committee, said the five nominees are all so strong that if their names were put in a hat and one picked blindly the Maryland diocese still would get a good bishop.