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Md. Episcopalians pick N.J. priest as new bishop


FROSTBURG -- The Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, a priest of the Diocese of Newark, N.J., and an early favorite among the voting clergy, was elected the 13th Episcopal Bishop of Maryland yesterday on the third ballot.

He succeeds Bishop A. Theodore Eastman, who retired in January 1994. Tentative plans are for Father Ihloff's consecration and installation to be conducted in the fall.

Following protocol, neither he nor four other candidates was present during the election. But Bishop-in-charge Charles L. Longest, who presided at the convention on the campus of Frostburg State University, announced to a round of applause after the final balloting: "We've been in touch with Robert, and he's accepted the election."

The second ballot found the 53-year-old rector of Christ Church in Madison, N.J., only three short of the clergy votes he needed and only five short of the necessary majority among the lay voters.

Father Ihloff could not be reached immediately for comment.The bishop-elect said he was "very heartened" by his recent conversations with priests of the Maryland Diocese, and he hopes to be a unifying influence.

At meetings with Maryland Episcopalians in March, he distanced himself from the more controversial opinions of his present bishop in New Jersey, John Shelby Spong. "I have a different focus from the bishop of Newark," Father Ihloff told questioners in Severna Park. "He's a good friend, but I will not let my personal agenda become the agenda of the diocese."

Bishop Spong is an outspoken advocate of ordaining sexually active gay men and lesbians and the blessing of same-sex unions. The Newark bishop openly questions such tenets of the Christian faith as the virgin birth of Jesus.

Homosexuality in the clergy is a "thorny issue" that needs "considerably more dialogue," said Father Ihloff, who described himself as "good at conflict management."

Yesterday's final tallies of the separate votes by clergy and lay delegates for the four men and one woman nominated by a search committee were:

* Father Ihloff, 129 and 110.

* The Rev. James A. Diamond, 49, rector of Christ Church in Andover, Mass., 36 and 29.

* The Very Rev. Gustave J. Weltsek Jr., 59, dean of St. John's Cathedral in Jacksonville, Fla., 9 and 16.

* The Rev. William P. Baxter Jr., 52, rector of St. Thomas Church in Garrison Forest, Baltimore County, the only priest of the Maryland Diocese among the nominees, 3 and 2.

* The Rev. Canon Patricia M. Thomas, 58, administrative assistant to Bishop Ronald H. Haines of Washington, D.C., 1 and none.

First-ballot votes by clergy and lay representatives were: Father Ihloff, 64 and 53; Father Diamond, 48 and 30; Father Baxter, 30 and 21; Dean Weltsek, 30 and 47; and Canon Thomas, 9 and 6.

The bishop-elect, who is married and the father of an adult son and daughter, will head a diocese that, like the Episcopal Church

nTC nationally, has been torn by disagreements over moral teaching and the setting of priorities for its financial resources.

In May 1993, Bishop Eastman, in his last address to a diocesan convention as its president, described his 11 years in the office as marked by "fractious criticism, flagging confidence and fluctuating morale."

Reconciliation was the theme of the Frostburg meeting that began Thursday night.

Addressing the delegates and visitors Friday, Inez Haynie Dodson, a lay leader at St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in West Baltimore, said "open and honest dialogue about some of our differences" must continue.

In another address, the Rev. Ronald Fisher, of the Church of the Ascension in Westminster, said the diocese's new head faces two important challenges: "The lack of an agreed-upon mission" and "an attitude of competitiveness" that is "more reflective of the world in which we live than of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

The trouble with diocesan "politicking," Father Fisher said, is that "there are winners and losers, and there is blood all over the floor."

Bishop Longest, the suffragan -- or assistant bishop -- who has been in charge of Maryland's Episcopal Diocese in the 16 months since Bishop Eastman's retirement, told the convention: "In the Body of Christ, there can be no room for an attitude of we and they."

Mrs. Dodson said Bishop Longest's efforts had amounted to "loving guidance" of a diverse and sometimes contentious membership. Bishop Longest declined to be a candidate for head of the diocese before the search committee began deliberating last year.

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