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NH Episcopalians elect Dartmouth grad as new bishop

New Hampshire Sunday News

May 19. 2012 1:43PM

The man chosen by New Hampshire Episcopalians to be their new bishop had a life-altering 'mystical experience' on the Connecticut River when he was a student at Dartmouth College in the early 1980s.

The Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Amherst, Mass., was elected 'bishop coadjutor' of the Diocese of New Hampshire on Saturday at St. Paul Church in Concord.

Pending approval by church leaders, he will be installed as the diocese's 10th bishop at the same church on Jan. 5.

In a telephone interview, Hirschfeld said he is 'humbled' at being selected to lead the church here and said, 'I'm looking forward to growing together in love.'

To be chosen bishop, a candidate must receive a majority of ballots cast by the clergy as well as lay representatives of parishes; delegates vote as many times as necessary until a bishop is chosen. On the first ballot, Hirschfeld was the choice of 91 of the 166 lay delegates and 54 of 87 clergy who attended the convention.

The Rev. Adrian Robbins Cole, president of the diocese's standing committee, said Hirschfeld's election on the first ballot 'shows the level of enthusiasm and support that the new bishop has from the diocese.'

When the result was announced, Cole said, 'there was just real joy in the atmosphere, and it was spontaneous.'

A self-described 'contemplative,' the 51-year-old Hirschfeld said he looks forward to 'being in prayer with the people of the Diocese of New Hampshire and discovering where God is leading us ... to work for the restoration of all people in unity with God and each other.'

He and his wife of 21 years, Polly Ingraham, also a Dartmouth grad, have three children: Willie, 19, a student at Dartmouth; Cora, 17; and Henry, 13.

Michael Hirschfeld, his brother, is rector of St. Paul's School in Concord.

As a teenager, Hirschfeld had moved away from the church, but at Dartmouth, where he was on the crew team, he had an experience that changed the direction of his life.

Rowing alone, he said, 'I just had this feeling all of a sudden ... of being completely enveloped and embraced. Of being literally buoyed up. ... My heart just suddenly felt bigger than it really was.'

And amid a sudden 'sheer silence,' he was filled with a sense of God 'saying I am present and I want you to come closer.'

He went back to church, and by the time he graduated from Dartmouth in 1983, he felt called to ministry. He attended General Theological Seminary in New York City and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.

At the 2012 General Convention in Indianapolis in July, the bishops, clergy and lay leadership of the Episcopal Church will be asked to consent to Hirschfeld's election. The House of Bishops and the House of Deputies must approve the election by a two-thirds majority.

As spiritual leader of New Hampshire's 10,000 Episcopalians, Hirschfeld would succeed retiring Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who became a national figure as the nation's first gay Episcopal bishop.

In a statement, Bishop Robinson welcomed Hirschfeld, calling him 'a man of faith and vision.' And he said, 'He will find the congregations and people of the diocese to be vibrant, faithful and bold in their proclamation of the Gospel and their service to the world.'

Hirschfeld and the other two finalists, the Rev. Bill Rich of Boston and the Rev. Penny Bridges of Great Falls, Va., met with parishioners at 'meet-and-greet' sessions held across the state earlier this month.

The Rev. Kevin Nichols of Hopkinton, chairman of the 18-member search committee, said Hirschfeld touched people during those visits. 'He spoke to where they are in their own lives and into the future of the diocese,' he said. 'And I think it was that connection point that really led us to this moment.'

Hirschfeld said Saturday he has not experienced a split in the church here. And he said, 'I really believe what's been called the division in the church will be healed, and reconciliation is always possible.'

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