Amid the gothic grandeur of the consecration of a new bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, a man in an overcoat and fedora suddenly held forth from the center aisle about a vision he said God had given him for a new bridge in Pittsburgh.
The speaker was the about-to-be-consecrated Bishop Dorsey Winter Marsden McConnell. The Yale-educated former actor, 58, teamed with diocesan youth to stage a parable about an engineer who couldn't persuade anyone to build his "Bridge of the Angels" but used its model to save many families from a fire that broke out amid the great Pittsburgh flood of 1936.
It brought the congregation of 1,000 to laughter and applause, and made a clear statement that Bishop McConnell is someone from whom to expect the unexpected. Bridges and unity were a running theme of the consecration, the first in Pittsburgh since a diocesan split in 2008 led by its last tenured bishop.
"This ministry is all about bridges. So anything that will give us a greater consciousness of their necessity, we are in favor of," Bishop McConnell said in brief remarks after his consecration. With that in mind, he quipped that he especially wanted to thank local government officials "for closing the Squirrel Hill Tunnel in honor of this day."
The congregation packed into Calvary Episcopal Church, Shadyside, burst into laughter.
The service was a joyous counterpoint to the turmoil that has marked the diocese's recent past due to different understandings of biblical theology, sexual ethics and church property laws. In the same week that Pittsburgh became the first of four similarly split dioceses to elect a permanent bishop, leaders of the Diocese of South Carolina announced plans to become the fifth to secede from the Episcopal Church following a denominational disciplinary committee's decision to remove from ministry South Carolina's Bishop Mark Lawrence, formerly a priest of Pittsburgh. The seceding bodies have all joined the more conservative Anglican Church in North America, led by Pittsburgh's Archbishop Robert Duncan.
Even after the schism, tensions remain within the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh over matters including same-sex blessings, which the diocese has never allowed. But the diocese, which has 9,000 members in 11 counties, has reasons to celebrate. Of 110 dioceses in the 1.9 million-member Episcopal Church, it was one of just 27 to grow last year, with attendance up more than 2 percent. Its parishes recently jumped by four to 37, including the return of three that originally left in the schism.
The parable skit aside, the service was a celebration of Anglican tradition. Calvary's 7,500-pipe organ, horns and drums accompanied a choir that filled the soaring Gothic revival nave with anthems ancient and new. The new bishop entered in a long procession to the ancient Prayer of the Breastplate of St. Patrick: "I bind unto myself today / The power of God to hold and lead / His eye to watch, His might to stay / His ear to hearken to my need."
Other bishops joined Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori in consecrating the new bishop, including Bishop Kenneth Price Jr., who had been provisional bishop of Pittsburgh. Also among the chief consecrators was Bishop Kurt Kusserow of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America., as a sign of the relationship between the two denominations and of a longstanding covenant between the two local jurisdictions. After the bishop-elect had made his promises, he was presented with the vestments and symbols of his office.
His three temporary predecessors in post-schism Pittsburgh, Bishop Price, Bishop Robert Johnson and Bishop David C. Jones, presented him with his crozier, or shepherd's staff, and told him to "stand among a people of witness to Christ's healing grace for the church and for the world."
Later the Rev. Harold T. Lewis, rector of Calvary, read a letter from retired Bishop Alden Hathaway, bishop of Pittsburgh 1981-97, who expressed regret for being unable to attend. He called Bishop McConnell "a godly person chosen by the Holy Spirit" to lead the diocese. "There are difficult days ahead, yet filled with great promise," he wrote.
The first two people to whom the new bishop gave the Eucharist were his wife, Betsy, a clinical social worker, and son, Evan, a college student.
As is customary, the sermon was not preached by the new bishop. What was not customary was that the preacher was from another denomination. The Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, currently a pastor in Mountain View, Calif., is a close friend of Bishop McConnell and a minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
God, he preached, "has the peculiar power of bringing good news out of crisis."
Although the church worldwide and the Diocese of Pittsburgh "is contending with crisis, I think God's word to you today is that this must not simply be the consecration of a new bishop. But, if we respond to the word of God today, this can be the consecration of a renewal of a diocese."
He called on people who disagree fervently with each other over theology and other matters to stop criticizing each other and confess their own failings. He urged them to pray constantly and come together around the Communion table.
"Crisis can do one of three things to a church. It can drive us apart. It can cause us to abandon one another or it can drive us to cleave to one another, even on our knees," Rev. Hamilton said. "Controversies cannot and should not tear us apart."
In an interview, the presiding bishop said she worked a decade ago with then-Father McConnell in an effort to prevent schism. "He's an exceedingly faithful human being and priest and I believe the diocese has called someone who understands the diversity of the church, who has a deep relationship with God in Jesus Christ and who they believe can help them move into the next chapter of history as a diocese," she said.
The Rev. Kris McInnes is an associate rector at St. Paul's in Mt. Lebanon and a priest-in-charge at St. David's in Peters, whose previous congregation returned the building to the Episcopal Church and left to worship in a rented facility.
Bishop McConnell "is a good man, a good priest and I trust will be a good bishop," he said. "Hopefully he will enable us to work through the difficult realities of our diocese in the days and years ahead."
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.