Head of the state's Episcopal fold retires

April 07, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN REPORTER

Amid the heated national and global conflicts of the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. Robert Wilkes Ihloff has managed to keep the calm in Maryland.

Retiring this weekend after a dozen years as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, Ihloff is proud to have worked through many of the tensions that have beset the church elsewhere, from female clergy to the place of gays and lesbians.

"It makes my retirement much easier in that I am very proud of this diocese in the way it functions and is administered," Ihloff said.

The 65-year-old Connecticut native will celebrate his final service as bishop on Easter Sunday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation on University Parkway, four decades after he entered the ministry. Bishop Suffragan John L. Rabb will serve until a replacement is chosen by early next year.

As Ihloff looks back over his years, he points out such accomplishments as the expansion of the Bishop Claggett Center, a Frederick County camp and conference center located in the geographic center of the diocese.

He established annual visits to each of the diocese's 117 parishes throughout Baltimore and 10 counties in mostly Western and Central Maryland by a bishop or the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool. They and the diocesan staff spend much time "trying to make sure more marginal parishes don't disappear," he said.

"We've tried to make ... parishes feel more tied to each other," Ihloff said. "We have a natural link to each other in ministry."

When the bishop arrived in Maryland in 1995, individual parishes were questioning their annual assessment, or money paid to support the diocese. They don't question that any longer, he said.

Ihloff said he is also satisfied that the diocese has supported diverse viewpoints.

"We have tried to say to people within the diocese, `We will respect your theological perspective,' " the bishop said, even if it's not the majority one.

For example, Maryland was one of the first dioceses in the United States to embrace women as clergy, Ihloff said. At least three dioceses nationwide still do not ordain women. Yet some clergy within Maryland continue to have qualms about women in the church, and to accommodate the concerns, Glasspool does not visit those congregations, Ihloff said.

But the accommodations only go so far. Ihloff said he has told reluctant priests that they must remain part of activities led by women, though they could personally refrain from taking communion. "It's not permissible to storm out of a diocesan gathering because there's a woman doing something," he said.

The diocese does have openly gay and lesbian clergy, some of whom are in long-term, committed relationships, but Ihloff has refused to authorize blessings of same-sex unions within the diocese. The global Anglican Communion has asked that none of its national counterparts, such as Episcopal Church in the United States, do so, he said.

Struggles within the Episcopal Church made national headlines when its House of Bishops considered the election of its first openly gay bishop, New Hampshire's V. Gene Robinson, in 2003.

The dispute continued last year with the installation of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, who supports gay clergy and other liberal views.

Since 2003, some parishes have broken away or aligned themselves with bishops outside the United States who share more conservative views on scripture. Now, the House of Bishops has until September to respond to a communique from the communion's primates that called for changes such as creation of a council of Anglican bishops to oversee more conservative dioceses within the United States.

Ihloff said that would give a foreign bishop power over the Episcopal Church, which violates its canons, he said.

Despite the tension, the bishop said he felt positive after a March meeting in Texas, where the House of Bishops rallied to back the communique.

Though there had been more alienation along liberal-conservative lines over the past few years, "I feel there has been real healing," the bishop said.

"I'm retiring with a good sense that this is a good time to retire."

Not that Ihloff's diocese hasn't experienced a few of its own tensions.

Two congregations of former Episcopalians have formed since 2003. Emmaus Anglican Church broke away from St. Timothy's Church in Catonsville after Robinson's ordination. The Church of the Resurrection, which worships in Owings Mills, has a pastor who was ordained by a Bolivian bishop for the Diocese of Chile in 2005.

Ihloff said he doesn't have information about those groups, though he believes they are small. "I'm quite sure those people are happier worshiping in their way; the diocese may also be happier that they are worshiping in their own way," he said.

Emmaus' pastor, the Rev. Steven R. Randall, described Ihloff as a charismatic leader with natural ability. However, Randall explained that the number of Episcopalians has decreased in Maryland under Ihloff's watch, while the state's population has increased.

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