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N.H. Episcopalians may elect 2d gay bishop

Vote less charged than in 2003

The Rev. William W. Rich is one of three nominees on the May 19 ballot. The Rev. William W. Rich is one of three nominees on the May 19 ballot. (Diocese of New Hampshire)
By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / April 30, 2012
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Nine years after electing the first openly gay bishop in the history of their church, causing a rift in the worldwide Anglican Communion that remains unrepaired, New Hampshire Episcopalians may choose a second gay man as their leader.

The Rev. William W. Rich, a senior associate rector at Trinity Church in Boston and a married gay man, is one of three priests nominated by a Diocese of New Hampshire search committee to succeed Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who is retiring.

About 200 clergy and elected lay delegates will vote by secret ballot in Concord on May 19. The Rev. Adrian Robbins-Cole, president of the Standing Committee, a diocesan advisory board, declined to handicap the vote but speculated most delegates will see the nominees’ sexuality as irrelevant.

“I think electors in New Hampshire are interested in getting the best bishop for New Hampshire,’’ he said. “People are very parochial in the end.’’

Rich and the other candidates - the Rev. Penelope Maud Bridges, rector of St. Francis Episcopal Church in Great Falls, Va., and the Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst - will visit New Hampshire this week in advance of the election.

Whatever the outcome, the reaction is likely to be far less dramatic than the response to Robinson’s election.

“It seems like the spotlight has kind of left us,’’ said Margaret Porter, vice chairwoman of the bishop search committee.

The tiny New Hampshire diocese, which draws 4,100 churchgoers most Sundays, found itself at the center of a global controversy after selecting Robinson in 2003. Liberals in the United States and overseas hailed his elevation as a momentous victory for gay rights; theological conservatives viewed it as a provocation that could strain to the breaking point the ties binding the worldwide church.

Robinson became an international figure, the toast of awards dinners and the target of death threats. Conservative Anglicans, including many from Africa, threatened to break from the Anglican Communion.

Fearing schism, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the worldwide church, urged the Episcopal Church in the United States to reconsider its actions. In 2008, he excluded Robinson from the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade gathering of the worldwide church.

But Williams, who will step down at the end of this year, failed to placate conservatives or rein in liberals, and he has been unable to broker a compromise between the camps. The Church of England this spring rejected a proposal Williams backed for a new covenant articulating common beliefs among Anglicans and establishing a process for resolving disputes. The Episcopal Church will discuss the covenant at their convention this summer.

Episcopalians in the United States have essentially agreed to disagree with conservatives over issues of sexuality. After imposing a de facto moratorium on approving new gay leaders in 2006, the US church’s general convention lifted the restriction in 2009, the same year the Rev. Mary D. Glasspool, a lesbian, was elected assistant bishop in Los Angeles.

Last week, tensions simmered again as preparations began in England to choose a successor to Williams, who is retiring at the end of the year.

Some 200 conservative clergy and laity from 30 countries gathered in London and pledged “to work together in an ever-strengthening partnership, to stand by each other, and to engage in a battle of ideas on behalf of the Biblical Gospel,’’ according to the website of the group, the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.

They also announced plans for another conference next year. In a statement, leaders of the fellowship said: “We believe that the joyful meeting of orthodox Anglicans from all over the world will be a dynamic force for restating the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of revisionist attempts to change basic doctrines and turn Christianity merely into a movement for social betterment.’’

Still, some US church leaders remain optimistic about the future of the Anglican Communion. Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Diocese of Massachusetts said he believes it will survive - not because conservative and liberal dioceses will reach agreement on hot-button issues like sexuality, but because he believes they will be willing to grant one another greater autonomy.

“I think there is definitely a change, a movement in much of the African church not to recognize the blessing of same-sex unions, or to encourage gay partnerships, but a real acknowledgment that our cultures and pastoral situations are different,’’ he said.

Bishop Brian R. Marsh, the president of the House of Bishops of the Anglican Church in America, a traditional Anglican church that is not part of the Anglican Communion, said his church gained five additional parishes in New Hampshire within a year of Robinson’s election.

Even with that, membership in the mainline New Hampshire Episcopal Church has increased slightly in recent years, Porter said. Only one Episcopal parish closed after Robinson’s election, and that church long had differences with the diocese, she said.

New Hampshire’s next bishop, with the consent of the national church’s general convention in July, will be consecrated in August and installed in January 2013.

Porter said that after months of work, the group’s consensus around the three nominees was “immediate and powerfully strong.’’

Rich, who spent much of his early life in Baltimore, holds a doctoral degree in psychology and religion. He oversees educational programs at Trinity and until last year was a lecturer at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

In answers to the search committee’s questions, posted on the committee’s website, he wrote that as a young priest in 1992, he presided at the “holy union’’ of a lesbian couple in Baltimore. Though he had obtained permission from his superiors, a media storm ensued, and he was tried, and exonerated, in both informal and formal church trials.

Like the other two nominees, he declined to be interviewed, citing the period of prayerful discernment prior to the vote.

Bridges grew up in Ireland and England and immigrated to the United States in 1985. She attended church as a layperson in Manchester, N.H., for nine years before attending seminary.

In her application, she wrote that New Hampshire had “set a standard for radical inclusion,’’ epitomizing “the broad umbrella of Anglicanism.’’

In his answers to the committee’s queries, Hirschfeld, who grew up in Connecticut, praised the Diocese of New Hampshire for its courage in elevating Robinson and said he was confident the divisions within the church would be healed.

He also noted that in 2006 he embarked on a “wedding fast,’’ refraining from presiding at weddings in response to a call from the wider church to refrain from blessing gay couples.

Many New Hampshire Episcopalians are proud of the role they have played in church history, but their focus now - as in 2003, they say - is on supporting the best person for the job, whoever that may be.

One member of the search committee, the Rev. Jason Wells, now a priest in Concord, was just months away from completing seminary when Robinson was elected. After Wells publicly declared his support for Robinson, theDiocese of Dallas turned him down for ordination. The Diocese of New Hampshire eventually sponsored him instead.

Wells declined to say which nominee he prefers, but he said he, like most of his fellow electors, would pick the candidate he thinks can best help parishes serve their communities, and thrive.

“I don’t get the sense that anybody here is going to cast a vote to make a statement one way or another, because there is really too much at stake,’’ he said. “We have churches that need good leadership.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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