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January 02. 2013 10:23PM

Incoming Episcopal Bishop of NH doesn't expect to attract media glare


The Right Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld, who is slated to be installed the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire on Saturday. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER.)

CONCORD - The stage is sizzling. The crowd is howling and stamping its feet. The energy makes your skin crawl.

What do you do when your act follows that of a rock star? If Robert Hirschfeld knows one thing, he knows not to imitate the last act.

Hirschfeld becomes the full-fledged 10th Episcopal Bishop for the state of New Hampshire on Saturday in an investiture ceremony that will include several Episcopal bishops, including his predecessor, outgoing Bishop Gene Robinson.

Robinson was elected as New Hampshire bishop 10 years ago, rocking the Episcopal world as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop. He became a national figure overnight and stayed in the spotlight for years. Even his retirement brought about a round of national media attention.

"I'm quieter; I'm an introvert. Gene (Robinson) is off-the-charts extrovert," said Hirschfeld. At other times during an hour-long interview this week, Hirschfeld described himself as contemplative.

He said he's more likely to write a prayer than issue a press release. And he won't endorse political candidates, something Robinson did last year when he endorsed Barack Obama for re-election.

But Hirschfeld said the Episcopal Church is no longer the staid, establishment church of decades past. It is now rooted in social-justice issues, and Hirschfeld said he's already attended a vigil in Concord to remember those whose death was preceded by homelessness. And he is slated to keep vigil with death penalty opponents.

Like Robinson, Hirschfeld said he supports the ordination of gay clergy and same-sex marriages.

"I think what's happened in New Hampshire, we've been shaken out of our comfort zone," he said. Part of that was Robinson's ordination, he said. But part is also the presence of the outcast, the poor, prisoners and spiritually bereft in the state. That is where humanity and Good meet, he said.

"This is a church that really wants to be authentic, authentically human," he said.

Hirschfeld, 52, leads a diocese that counts 47 parishes, nine seasonal chapels and two boarding schools under its direct control - White Mountain School and Holderness School. The most famous, St. Paul School, is not formally tied to the Diocese, although the Episcopal bishop holds the title of chaplain at the school.

The Diocese counted 14,582 active church members in 2010, up from 14,160 in 2007. That makes the New Hampshire Diocese one of the fastest growing in the country, according to episcopalchurch.org, the website of the church in the United States.

Hirschfeld was born in Minnesota and grew up in Connecticut. He graduated from Dartmouth College, and has worked at parishes in New Haven and Storrs, Conn., and Amherst, Mass.

He is married to Polly Ingraham, who currently teaches English at a charter school in Fitchburg, Mass. They have three children, two who are in college and the third an eighth grader. His brother, Michael Hirschfeld, is the rector of St. Paul School.

The investiture, the formal ceremony that places Hirschfeld in the bishop's seat, is scheduled for 11 a.m. at St. Paul Church , 21 Centre St. in Concord.

The Right Rev. Stephen Lane, Bishop of Maine, will preside at the service, and other participants will include Robinson, the Right Rev. Douglas Theuner, who preceded Robinson, and bishops from Massachusetts, Quebec, Connecticut and Hawaii.

After that, Hirschfeld said he's not sure what he will do as a bishop. He knows he won't do a good job stapled to his desk in Concord. And he knows from surveys that while most people are spiritual, many aren't connected to churches or religion.

He said he wants to develop the ministry of ordinary people.

He quoted Catholic Bishop Oscar Romero, who was killed by El Salvadoran death squads, who said that a person working in a market or driving a taxi can be ministers of God if they do their work with honesty and integrity.

"God's glory," Hirschfeld said, "is shown not in the ministry of the ordained but the baptized."

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Mark Hayward may be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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