Episcopal bishop-elect expects inquiries


"Jack is neither the devil incarnate nor Christ incarnate." The Rev. Robert W. Ihloff was talking about Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, N.J.

Father Ihloff, 54, is the affable, energetic, fluent priest of Bishop Spong's diocese who was elected by Maryland Episcopalians May 20 to lead them into the 21st century.

Assuming that a majority of the other dioceses ratify his selection as expected, he will be elevated to his new post in mid-October by Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning at the National Episcopal Cathedral in Washington.

Not surprisingly, Bishop-elect Ihloff has been dogged by laity in Maryland -- and some clergy -- with searching questions about the man who has been his ecclesiastical boss for the past eight years.

Newark is among the most liberal of Episcopal dioceses. Bishop Spong, with a reputation as his church's most radical leader, has for nearly a decade been a lightning rod for theological controversy.

A prolific author, Bishop Spong publicly has questioned such tenets of the Christian faith as Jesus' virgin birth, his Resurrection, the Trinity, even the bedrock belief that God's Son was born of a woman to save a fallen humanity.

The Newark bishop, who appears to revel in the fuss he causes, has suggested that the Apostle Paul was a self-loathing, repressed homosexual. Bishop Spong has been a forceful advocate of ordaining sexually active gay men and lesbian women and wants to make church blessings of same-sex unions official.

Bishop-elect Ihloff expects questions about Bishop Spong wherever he goes, and has answers. In an interview during a recent visit to Baltimore with his wife, Nancy, he said, "I have a good working relationship with Jack Spong. He has written some very good books. I have not disagreed with him on content so much as on style."

But he does not accord with Bishop Spong's eager courting of debate, Father Ihloff said. "It is not in my makeup to try to create controversy. I try not to alienate people needlessly. Constant bickering about the minutiae detracts from the spiritual issues that go deeper."

As for his priorities as 13th Episcopal Bishop of Maryland, Father Ihloff said they include "finding ways to compromise" and maintaining "a kind of tender balance" between liberals and traditionalists in what at times has been a fractious diocese.

"Since the 16th century, for virtually our whole history as a separate church, the Anglican tradition has honored many different points of view, many different ways of worshiping," he said. "Elizabeth the First had to create one church of old-style Catholics and newfangled Protestants . . .

"We do not always have to agree. I think that some of the best things that come in church life come from people honestly disagreeing with one another. These disagreements can even be vehement and heartfelt. As long as people keep in mind that they have a right to the same church, I think we can live into our Anglican tradition, into our Episcopal tradition."

On an issue that has divided Maryland's Episcopal diocese as well as Episcopalians nationally and other Christian denominations -- the ordination of practicing homosexuals -- Father Ihloff said, "I think it's something the church must dig into and dialogue more about. I will not act precipitously.

"In my ministry, I have known a number of gay and lesbian clergy whom I respect, and who have done wonderful jobs. So, in my heart, I know this can work."

But, he added, "I do not foresee a consensus on this for the whole church in the near future." Observing that for the Newark and Massachusetts dioceses, where he spent most of his ministry, the ordaining of gays and lesbians "seems to be the right decision," Father Ihloff said, "Dioceses deciding on their own what to do is possibly not a bad way to proceed."

About the formal charges -- called presentments -- recently filed by 10 Episcopal bishops against a former suffragan bishop of Newark for allegedly flouting church law in ordaining a homosexual, Father Ihloff said, "My own sense of the presentments is that they are an unfortunate kind of legalism.

"I find it a little bit off-putting that a retired bishop is kind of a pawn in all this. I do not anticipate that the presentments will be successful, but I do anticipate that they will do some harm to the life of the church."

Father Ihloff discussed with some bitterness the recent disclosure that the denomination's former treasurer, Ellen F. Cooke, embezzled more than $2.2 million while wielding what he called "extraordinary power on the national church level."

"It's particularly annoying," he said, "because it is not a case of a person who stole a little bit of money because she was poor. A serious crime has been committed, and punishment should ensue. I would hope for a stronger voice from Bishop Browning on this."

Father Ihloff will not be consecrated and installed as bishop of Maryland until after Pope John Paul II's Oct. 8 visit to Baltimore, but he expects to represent the Episcopal diocese at papal events here.

"The pope's visit is a wonderful gift to the city and a wonderful gift to Roman Catholics in the area, a wonderful gift to all of us," Father Ihloff said. "Despite obvious differences of opinion I have with the pope on a variety of subjects, I will look forward to that visit."

The bishop-elect said that interfaith cooperation is high on his list of priorities.

He plans to try to get to know the clergy in the far western and southern ends of the sprawling Maryland diocese and listen to distant parishioners' concerns as much as those in the more populous Baltimore area.

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