Episcopal bishop ready for life in Pittsburgh, post-schism
When Bishop-elect Dorsey McConnell was chosen to lead an Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh still deeply wounded from a 2008 schism, he prepared to face anger, resentment and grief. He wasn't prepared for the drivers.
"I had to get used to driving here because people are so polite," said the bishop-elect, who hails from Boston. "I've been unnerved by the kindness of people in traffic. They let you turn left in front of them. I love this city."
The question is whether the diocese will turn left. Pittsburgh has been among the most theologically conservative dioceses in an increasingly liberal denomination. That culminated in a 2008 split in which its last tenured bishop led a majority of parishes and clergy out of the Episcopal Church in a dispute over biblical theology and gay ordination. But some conservatives believed schism was wrong and remain in the Episcopal diocese, which is still fairly conservative by Episcopal standards. It has 9,000 members in 33 parishes.
In the interim it was led by provisional Bishop Kenneth Price Jr., who is credited with helping the shattered diocese to heal. It is the first of four split dioceses to elect a permanent bishop. Bishop-elect McConnell will be consecrated Saturday in Calvary Episcopal Church, Shadyside.
Most recently rector of Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, Mass., the 58-year-old is a theologically conservative veteran of some of the most liberal dioceses in the nation. He and his wife, Betsy, a clinical social worker, have settled in Edgewood.
His desire to build bridges rather than burn them is partly a legacy of diplomacy he witnessed as the son of an Air Force general. His mother, who fled Nazi-occupied France, calmed him when he was 8 and upset that German officers were coming to dinner: "They were the enemy. They're allies now. Darling, learn this: Life is long, and we need each other," she told him.
His upbringing exposed him to every manifestation of Episcopal spirituality, from Anglo-Catholic to Marxist. He nevertheless left for college in "my brooding atheist poet phase," he said.
His reawakening began with an interest in Eastern Orthodoxy. He was moved by liturgical music he sang in the Yale's Russian Chorus. It was "so marvelous it leapt past my intellectual defenses and right into my heart," he said.
At a low point in his research during a 1976 Fulbright scholarship to Paris, he heard the bells at the city's Orthodox cathedral.
"I stumbled over the threshold into all that glory, and the grace of God hit me like a train. I had never seen anything so beautiful. I kept coming back."
After Paris he held jobs ranging from ranch hand to actor in places as far flung as Santa Barbara, Calif., and Argentina. He moved to New York to be with Betsy, then realized he wasn't good at loving anyone but himself. "I needed more than a little help. I needed a savior," he said.
He found salvation at All Angels Episcopal Church in Manhattan, a tiny parish experiencing renewal through evangelical and charismatic Anglicanism.
"There was this sense that God was really active and the Holy Spirit was serious about giving good gifts to his people," he said.
He married Betsy, enrolled in General Theological Seminary and was ordained in 1983. He served as chaplain of the Episcopal church at Yale University, and at parishes in New York and Seattle before Boston.
"From Orthodoxy, I retain the deep sense of beauty and the mystery of God, and the sense of continuity between the communion of saints in heaven and on Earth. From the Catholic side of Anglicanism I have a passion for the sacraments and for the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and through the liturgy," he said.
"From the evangelical side there is the priority and authority of the word of God in scripture and the vigorous sense of unlimited grace through the cross of Christ. The charismatic side was really the sense that God has power to do something about the things that afflict us, that he wants to and can be called on and counted on. From the progressive side ... there is engagement with contemporary society and passion for social justice."
He has never served in a diocese where the bishop or most clergy shared his conservative theology, but said his bishops treated him respectfully.
"I also know the feeling ... of having colleagues who have looked at me as some kind of dinosaur," he said.
He doesn't want anyone in this diocese to feel marginalized. Starting in 1999 he was an organizer of gatherings where leaders from across the theological spectrum prayed, talked and studied the Bible, seeking reconciliation.
"I tried to join myself into diocesan affairs, and I have enjoyed working with people from several different perspectives," he said.
He doesn't blame Pittsburghers who may be suspicious of him.
The election is "like getting married by mail order. The amount of information they had about the candidates was pretty small for making such a huge decision. I think under those circumstances, it's very hard to be seen three-dimensionally."
He'd like to host get-acquainted potluck suppers in parishes.
"I'm a good cook," he said. "There would be food and Bible study and an open discussion about anything they'd like to talk about."
Mary Roehrich, a member of St. Andrew's in Highland Park, considers herself a theological moderate, and was on the committee that reorganized the diocese after the split.
Though the bishop-elect wasn't her first choice, "fear is a very poor strategy for going forward, so I'm not worried particularly. One cannot change the past," she said. "It hasn't been easy, but I think we are in a much better place and have shown a certain amount of resilience and love and compassion for each other."
The bishop-elect has occupied a tiny Monroeville office dominated by pictures of his predecessors. He laughs when a visitor's glance stops on the image of Bishop Robert Duncan.
The last full bishop of the Episcopal diocese is now bishop of the rival Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh and archbishop of the Anglican Church in North America. That Anglican flock is as interested as his own in how he will handle negotiations over the property of congregations that left the Episcopal diocese.
Archbishop Duncan participated in reconciliation talks that Bishop-elect McConnell co-convened in 1999. Although they haven't spoken recently, "I got a warm note from Bob following my election," he said.
The Rev. Jonathan Millard, rector of the Church of the Ascension in Oakland, is one of the Anglican clergy watching closely intently for signals, particularly concerning Anglican parishes whose deed is in the name of the congregation, but which the Episcopal Church asserts ownership of through a trust clause in its constitution.
"I'm praying for God's blessing on him, and I want him to have a fruitful ministry here in Pittsburgh," Rev. Millard said. "I hope there would be ways we could work collaboratively, even though there has been recent, difficult history."
The bishop-elect isn't talking specifics on property. One of his predecessor's last acts was to oversee a settlement with an Anglican parish whose primary ministry is as a shelter and outreach to the homeless, allowing it to keep all if its property and giving it clear title to the property. But both parties said that the settlement was based on a unique ministry, and isn't a model for other parishes.
"I want to resolve these outstanding property issues in as timely a manner as possible, as equitably as possible and with as little further conflict as possible. I think we all want to get beyond this so we can be focused on the mission of Christ in our respective jurisdictions," he said.
Within his own flock there are deep tensions over gay ordination and same-sex blessings. The former is common in the Episcopal Church outside Pittsburgh. This summer the church approved a blessing rite for trial use in dioceses where the bishop approves it. Bishop-elect McConnell has said there must be intense, formal discussion before any policy is set.
While he has the final say, "I always said I wouldn't dictate from the top down," he said.
He would like to engage the Public Conversations Project to lead a full and fair discussion.
Ministry to children, teens and young adults is a top priority for the new bishop. He wants a return to civic engagement by Episcopal leaders, having a voice in addressing the city's challenges. The overarching issue, he said, is that society is becoming more secular and people require convincing that God and the church must be central to their lives.
"The lively question is, what on Earth does God have to do with the ordinary yearnings and struggles of average human beings, with the questions that are deeply embedded in people's hearts? Are we articulating that in a way that people can understand and that attracts them and helps them out?" he said.
"Everybody is looking, in my experience, for two things: mercy and hope. The role of this diocese is every chance we get, in every pulpit, in every parish and every conversation outside our walls, to do everything we can to connect the love and power of God to that basic human yearning."
First Published October 19, 2012 12:00 am