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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Alumnus to lead New Hampshire Episcopalians

The Rev. Robert Hirschfeld '83 was selected as the 10th Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, succeeding the controversial Bishop Gene Robinson.
The Rev. Robert Hirschfeld '83 was selected as the 10th Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, succeeding the controversial Bishop Gene Robinson.

Hirschfeld's election comes after the "near cataclysmic" controversial election of the current bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, in 2003 as the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, visiting religion professor and Episcopal priest Randall Balmer said. The national Episcopal Church was highly interested in Hirschfeld's election, and the people of New Hampshire may have wanted to elect a bishop "without making a statement," according to Balmer.

"I personally support the consecration of gays, and this is not an anti-gay statement at all, but the Gene Robinson election was disruptive to the Episcopal Church, and the people of New Hampshire had the choice of choosing another gay man as their bishop," Balmer said. "Setting aside all the merits, it's probably not a bad thing that the parishioners went in the direction that they did or else there would have been some danger of making New Hampshire the gay diocese."

Those more closely involved with the New Hampshire diocese believe that Robinson's sexuality was unrelated to the election, as parishioners chose the person who was most qualified for the job, Rev. Guy Collins, the campus Episcopal minister and rector of St. Thomas church in Hanover, said.

"When people vote, they vote about qualities of a person and qualities of leadership in terms of spiritual and church leadership," Religion professor and department chair Susan Ackerman said. "I don't think that someone's sexual relations are relevant in how these decisions are made any more than they are in our selection of the president of Dartmouth."

Balmer said that because of the controversial nature of Robinson's election, he immediately became a public figure and was often approached by the media to talk about religion. Balmer believes that it is important for people of faith to have a voice in public discourse, he said.

The bishop for the Episcopal diocese of New Hampshire represents the wider church to its parishioners and is a pastor, visionary and authority figure for the clergy, who ensures the church is living up to its mission, Collins said.

"I feel like Rob was clearly the person who the diocese wanted to elect since he won by an astoundingly clear margin in the first round, which hasn't happened since 1905," Collins said.

Ackerman said that certain Protestant denominations are more "hierarchically nested" and that the Episcopal sect is one such church. Each Episcopal Congregation has its own priest and often will have an associate or assistant priest, while all churches answer to and are under the greater leadership of the bishop of the diocese.

"If the bishop is doing his or her job effectively, people are being nurtured and cared for by their priests, and the bishop is not the center of attention," Balmer said. "The real work of the diocese takes place at the local level, and the bishop is there to make sure that happens."

Hirschfeld said that his election as bishop felt more like an invitation, as he believes being a bishop does not change a person's status in God's eyes he views it as a particular job within the church. The position felt like something that his life as a priest has shaped him for, Hirschfeld said.

"The glory of God is a human being fully alive, thus a bishop's job is to make a congregation is fully alive in love, in service and in freedom," Hirschfeld said.

Hirschfeld said that it is sad that Robinson's experience as bishop has come at a personal cost, as he has had to experience death threats and public judgment. He said, however, that he hopes to carry on Robinson's legacy of enthusiasm for all of God's people regardless of sexual orientation, class, race or creed.

"It was really clear that the diocese was looking to appoint someone to continue the good work of the current bishop as we move forward into the future," Collins said. "The members were absolutely united in continuing the inclusion and hospitality that this diocese is well-known for."

Hirschfeld currently serves as the rector for Grace Church in Amherst, Mass. His son Willie Hirschfeld '14 said his father has been in a leadership position all his life and cares deeply about people.

"He's a very spiritual person, much like I am in that we're both really thoughtful," Willie Hirschfeld said. "He usually keeps most church stuff outside the house when he comes home. He had a leave it at the office' mentality. Being a priest can be a stressful, taxing job, but he's really a family man. He enjoys time at home with my family and my mom."

Robert Hirschfeld's election is certain to have an impact on Dartmouth students because the College aspires to have graduates who are in positions of leadership, Ackerman said. She said it is exciting for Dartmouth to have a graduate in a position of leadership the religious field.

"I think it's nice for the state of New Hampshire as well because even though he's not a native, he has such nice roots here in terms of undergraduate education," Ackerman said. "He's an outsider and an insider, as he lived here during a very formative period of his life. His Dartmouth experience was particularly formative, as it inspired him to go into the ministry."

Collins said that he is "tremendously" excited that the new bishop has worked in a college town because he understands student life and the new generation of church members.

"He brings to this diocese his extraordinary education and his sensitivity to the needs of others who have challenges that we need to be attentive to as a church," Collins said. "He has a true understanding of real diversity of the church, and Dartmouth should be extremely proud that one of its graduates is engaged in such a caring profession dedicated to helping the church serve all people of all conditions."

Hirschfeld said he hopes he can influence the choices of today's youth.

"I would love to have my role as a bishop in New Hampshire be an opportunity to encourage young people to find that the true meaning of life is in service to others, and this is where the deepest joy can be found," he said.