In the middle of campaign season, about 250 Episcopalians gathered for some electioneering of their own yesterday morning as they came out to meet, greet and grill the six men and women who hope to be the diocese's next bishop.
The process of picking the new leader of the Diocese of Maryland - which encompasses the central and western regions of the state - is an unusually democratic one, with clergy and delegates from each of the diocese's 117 churches coming together to make their choice at a convention later this month.
B. Hopkins, a lay delegate from Holy Trinity Church in Churchville, called the open selection process "a virtue of our church."
"It makes it messy, but beautiful," she said.
The six nominees for the bishop post have spent much of the week in Maryland, traveling by bus from Cumberland to Lothian for these so-called "walkabouts," where they have been given the chance to introduce themselves to some of the diocese's 48,000 members. Yesterday's was held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson.
"It's a huge job interview," said Sharon J. Tillman, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Diocese.
The Rev. T. Stewart Lucas, associate rector at St. Margaret's Church in Annapolis, said he has spent several days traveling with the candidates and, "I still haven't decided."
"They all seem to be welcoming of our diversity, and I'm jumping up-and-down excited about the future of the diocese," he said.
The walkabout began with a prayer service and with speeches given by each of the six candidates, none of whom directly addressed issues that have caused a rift among more liberal and conservative parishioners of the Episcopal Church in the United States.
The split began in 2003 when an openly gay bishop was chosen to lead New Hampshire's diocese. Since then, some U.S. parishes have broken away or aligned themselves with bishops outside the country who share more conservative views on Scripture. Locally, a group of dissatisfied parishioners from St. John's Episcopal Church in Glyndon left the diocese in 2005 to start their own church.
The bishop candidates are:
The Very Rev. Peter Eaton, 49, a native of Washington, who is dean and rector of St. John's Cathedral in Denver;
The Rev. Canon Dr. Mark Gatza, 52, a staff member of the Diocese of Maryland who has served the diocese in various roles since 1981;
The Rev. Jane Soyster Gould, 51, rector of St. Stephen's Church in Lynn, Mass.;
The Rev. Dr. John C.N. Hall, 49, rector of St. Matthew's Church in suburban Phoenix;
The Rev. Lura M. Kaval, 45, rector of St. Christopher's Church in Linthicum;
The Rev. Canon Eugene Taylor Sutton, 54, canon pastor of Washington National Cathedral and director of the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage there.
"From the time of Abraham, God has invited human beings like you and me to participate in God's work," Gatza told the group assembled in the sanctuary. "That continues today. Your questions and answers are an integral part of how God will appoint the 14th bishop of Maryland."
The 13th bishop - Robert W. Ihloff - retired last year after 12 years as the head of the diocese.
Eaton told a story about a flock of geese. "As geese fly in their typical formation, the lead birds bear the bulk of the duty," he said. "They make it easier for the birds farther back."
When those in the front tire, they fall back to rest and others move to the front to take on the more difficult work. If one of the birds falls out of the formation, a couple of the other birds, he said, will peel off, too, staying with that bird until he dies or is well enough to rejoin the group. He likened that sharing of the loads of life to what church members do for one another.
Each parishioner who attended yesterday had the opportunity to meet in a small group with each of the six nominees, some chosen by a search committee and others through a petitioning process. Lay delegates will take what they learned back to their churches to make a selection. The election convention will be held March 29, and the new bishop will be consecrated in June.
The state's first Episcopal bishop was elected in 1792 in Chestertown. Before the American Revolution, the Episcopal Church was part of the English Anglican Church. Since then, the Eastern Shore and the Washington suburbs have become separate dioceses.