By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
William Marot could not see or hear well enough to capture every ceremonial detail when 1,300 gathered in Concord Aug. 4 to consecrate the successor to the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson. But a few missed moments did not dampen his excitement.
The 77-year-old Episcopalian from Peterborough had only good things to say about Bishop Robinson, who will retire Jan. 4. But he noted that some in the diocese think Robinson spent too much time championing gay rights nationwide, and they’re ready for more locally focused leadership from the Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld.
“He’s going to be great,” said Marot, a member of All Saints Church in Peterborough. “He said if there’s a problem in any parish, he’ll go down there and fix it.”
Hirschfeld, 51, will serve as bishop coadjutor until January, when he will succeed Robinson as bishop. That gives him five months to shift from his prior role as rector of Grace Church in Amherst, Massachusetts, to lead a diocese with 47 parishes, 10,000 baptized members and real challenges unrelated to sexuality.
Hirschfeld’s consecration had none of the tension that marked Robinson’s in 2003, when bomb sweeps and bulletproof vests were deemed necessary precautions. But the day’s sermon made clear that the diocese, in selecting Hirschfeld, has not tired of taking risks.
“I’ve heard some people say that Rob is a safe choice for the next bishop of New Hampshire,” said the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, priest associate at Grace Church Amherst, as chuckles rose from the assembly. “He’s white. He’s a man. He’s straight. You might expect someone like that to be bland, timid, elitist. … Well, I’ve known and worked with Rob for a good long while, and I have to say: he’s not safe.”
The people responded with more laughter, cheers and applause.
In Amherst, Hirschfeld gained national attention by leading a “marriage fast” in 2007. His church refused to host any weddings as long as the Episcopal Church prohibited blessings for same-sex couples. This year’s General Convention approved a liturgy for same-sex blessings, which priests may use with a bishop’s permission.
New Hampshire Episcopalians seem accustomed to activism from the top. After a decade in the limelight that came with having a gay bishop, the Diocese of New Hampshire is not crying out for healing or conflict resolution, according to the committee that recruited Hirschfeld.
“There never was a lot of tension in the diocese” about welcoming an openly gay bishop, said Margaret Porter, vice chair of the bishop search committee. “The controversy was mostly outside the borders of this diocese and this state.”
Still, Hirschfeld recognizes a pent-up hunger among New Hampshire’s parishes for a bishop who, as their shepherd, will attend primarily to their pastoral needs and help them grow healthy congregations.
“It was very clear in the search profile that they’ve had to grow accustomed to sharing their bishop with the rest of the world [because] he’s so much in demand,” Hirschfeld said. “There’s been some expense to that. … I will not be as much in demand. I don’t really like to fly. My role will be to be the pastor of this diocese.”
Hirschfeld and his flock have their work cut out for them. The Gallup Poll classifies only 23 percent of New Hampshire residents as “very religious.” New Hampshire and Vermont are tied for least religious state in the union. Average Sunday attendance dropped 20 percent in the Diocese of New Hampshire from 2000 through 2010. The diocese saw a one-year, one-percent increase in average Sunday attendance in 2010.
Hirschfeld brings a record of working with teenagers and young adults. He’s been a vice chaplain at the University of Connecticut, and his parish ministry skills took root in the college towns of Amherst and New Haven.
Still, he does not purport to be an expert. He plans to listen, observe where the Holy Spirit is invigorating discipleship in New Hampshire and encourage the faithful to follow.
“The churches and the pews have been emptying, but they’re starting to come back,” Hirschfeld said. “Maybe not on Sunday morning, but I see people coming together for prayer groups, for Bible study, for partnering together to serve those who are most at risk in our society. When you look at those metrics, the church is very alive.”
When Robinson leaves for Washington, D.C., in January, New Hampshire may go back to being one of the less prominent, less visible dioceses in the Episcopal Church. For parishioners and clergy here, that will be just fine.
“It was part of our call” to share Bishop Robinson with the world, said the Rev. Fran Gardner-Smith, rector of St. Barnabas Church in Berlin, N.H. “What we’re excited about with Rob is that he will be here and be present with us.”