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Episcopalians converge for Washington service 2,300 are expected at fete consecrating new bishop and celebrating diversity


Maryland Episcopalians, who have battled openly over theological principles and liturgical style for years, plan a dramatic show of unity in Washington tomorrow as an expected 2,300 of them descend on the National Cathedral to celebrate their diversity in song and word.

The occasion is the consecration of the Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, the 54-year-old rector of a church in Madison, N.J., as the 13th Episcopal bishop of Maryland.

Bishop-elect Ihloff says his priorities include "finding ways to compromise" and maintaining "a kind of tender balance" between liberals and traditionalists who have vigorously debated such divisive diocesan issues as allocation of church funds, ordaining of gay men and lesbians, and blessing of same-sex unions.

"In the liturgy and the music, the consecration of the new bishop will bring together all of the great variety of things we do in this diocese," said the Rev. Mark F. Gatza, rector of Christ Church-Rock Spring in Forest Hill, Harford County, who is helping to coordinate the participation of parishes big and small from the Chesapeake Bay to the mountains of Western Maryland.

More than 60 of the 118 congregations of the Diocese of Maryland are represented by the 140 voices in a massed choir that will sing the offertory anthem during the two-hour Eucharistic service, Father Gatza said. It will be directed by Ann Matlack Hicks, organist of Grace Church in the Diocese of Newark, N.J., where Father Ihloff has been rector since 1987.

The varied music itself is a symbol of the Episcopal denomination's evolving worship styles, Father Gatza said. The offertory anthem, "Spirit Divine, Attend Our Prayers," is an arrangement by a contemporary musician, Searle Wright, of a 17th-century German melody, with a 19th-century text by Andrew Reed.

An animated Communion anthem, "Every Day Is a Day of Thanksgiving," will be sung by the Youth Gospel Choir of St. Philip's Church in Annapolis, whose syncopated rhythm also will enliven the choral preludes.

And that's not all.

The Choir of Men and Boys of Old St. Paul's Parish in downtown Baltimore will provide a sedate Anglican chant setting of Psalm 42; the choirs of Baltimore's Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation and of Grace Church in Madison will sing separately; and the seven-member Empire Brass group, which performs professionally in Washington and Baltimore, will play two trumpet fanfares.

Theological differences that have rocked the Episcopal Church locally and nationally in recent years -- as well as the effort to reconcile -- will be demonstrated by the range of attending bishops. These churchmen -- and at least two churchwomen -- will lay their hands on Father Ihloff, consecrating him as a successor to Jesus' Apostles in a ceremony that goes back 2,000 years.

The chief consecrator will be Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, who has been at the center of controversy in recent months, partly because of the embezzlement of $2.2 million by the church's national treasurer.

Episcopalians United, a conservative denominational organization, called last month for Bishop Browning's resignation, pointing to what it said is "a growing sense of alarm ++ about the health and future of our Episcopal family" and claiming support for its stand by more than 80 percent of the church's members.

Bishop Browning rejected the demand, chastising the group as "mean-spirited and destructive."

Co-consecrators will include Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, who for nearly a decade has been a lightning rod for theological controversy, clearly enjoying his reputation as his church's most radical leader. A forceful and prolific author, Bishop Spong has questioned such tenets of the Christian faith as Jesus' virgin birth, the Resurrection and the Trinity, and has suggested that the Apostle Paul was a self-loathing, repressed homosexual.

Among the others who will place their hands on Bishop-elect Ihloff -- thus passing along the governing authority of the Episcopal Church -- are two pioneering women, Barbara Harris of Massachusetts and Jane Holmes Dixon of Washington, D.C. They are suffragans -- or assisting bishops -- in their dioceses.

Father Gatza said preparations for the unifying ceremonies have been blessed by the burying of the hatchet by priests and parishes "that have not participated fully in the life of the diocese for years." The consecration of Bishop-elect Ihloff will be "like a meeting of old friends," the priest predicted.

An example of the harmony expected to prevail -- at least for a day -- is the participation of downtown Baltimore's Mount Calvary Church, a conservative Anglo-Catholic parish. "We will be well-represented," said its rector, the Rev. William H. Ilgenfritz.

It is entirely coincidental, Father Ilgenfritz explained, that Bishop Keith Lynn Ackerman, a leader of Episcopalians United, will celebrate Mass, preach and administer the sacrament of Confirmation at Mount Calvary on Sunday. His diocese of Quincy, Ill., is one of only four in the denomination refusing to ordain women.

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