05 April 2012

Could this be the first woman bishop from the Church of Ireland?

The Revd Penny Bridges ... could she be the first woman bishop from the Church of Ireland?

Patrick Comerford

A group of senior women priests in the Church of England who are monitoring progress towards accepting women bishops have formed a group they call DARC, an acronym for “Deans, Archdeacons and Residentiary Canons.”

Women have already been appointed canons and deans in the Church of Ireland, but it may still be some time before a woman is elected and consecrated a bishop in the Church of Ireland.

However, the Revd Penny Bridges from Northern Ireland may yet be the first woman from the Church of Ireland to be become a bishop in the Anglican Communion. She is one of three candidates being considered for the position of Bishop Coadjutor in the Diocese of New Hampshire and as the eventual successor to Bishop Gene Robinson.

She says: “I am Anglican to the core, having grown up in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.”

Bishop Robinson, now 64, was at the centre of controversy a decade ago when he became the first openly gay person to be elected a bishop in the Anglican Communion. He was consecrated in 2003, but announced in November 2010 that he plans to retire next year [2013], partly because of the stress and death threats he has received since he became Bishop of New Hampshire.

The three candidates to succeed him as bishop are:

● The Revd Penelope ‘Penny’ Maude Bridges, Rector of Saint Francis Episcopal Church in Great Falls, Virginia.
● The Revd Robert ‘Rob’ Hirschfeld of Grace Episcopal Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.
● The Revd Dr William ‘Bill’ Warwick Rich, senior associate rector for Christian Formation at Trinity Church, Boston, in the Diocese of Massachusetts.

When the Bishop Search and Nomination Committee in the diocese announced the names of the nominees, it said there was “absolute and immediate Search Committee consensus” around “these gifted and experienced priests.”

The three candidates return to New Hampshire for “Meet and Greet gatherings over three days at the beginning of next month [1-3 May] before the new bishop coadjutor is elected on Saturday 19 May 2012 by the canonically resident clergy of the diocese and the elected lay delegates from each of the 47 congregations.

Consent to the bishop’s election will be sought at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis in July. Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (TEC), is expected to consecrate the Bishop Coadjutor on 4 August 2012. Whoever is elected Bishop Coadjutor will be installed as the Tenth Bishop of New Hampshire in Saint Paul’s Church, Concord, on 5 January 2013.

Penny Bridges, who is Rector of Saint Francis Episcopal Church, Great Falls, Virginia, was born in Ireland. She says that those who meet her in the electoral process “quickly recognise that I have come a long way from my origins. I was born in Ireland and baptised in the Church of Ireland.”

A lifelong love of music, which found expression in viola and voice, brought her at 14 to an English cathedral school and then to Clare College, Cambridge, where she studied music as a choral scholar from 1976 to 1979, and gained a BA in Music.

After a brief time as a graduate intern at the British Library in London, she worked for four years as a programmer and analyst in the computer industry in London. There she met her husband, and in 1985 they emigrated to Manchester, New Hampshire, to pursue career opportunities in information technology.

Grace Church, Manchester, embraced them warmly for nine happy years, and there she sang in the choir, served as a Lay Eucharistic Minister and Visitor, and was a member of the Diocesan Convention, the Diocesan Council, and the parish environmental concerns committee.

She says her “calls to motherhood and ordained ministry are closely entwined. My first experience of reading in church was the Magnificat at a carol service early in my first pregnancy. When my two sons were small, Grace Church welcomed a new assistant rector, a young mother like myself, who served as a close-to-home model of the priesthood, and I subsequently experienced an irresistible call to ordination.”

She studied theology at Yale Divinity School, in New Haven, Connecticut, where she graduated first in her class, receiving her Master of Divinity degree (summa cum laude) in 1997. After her ordination as deacon in 1997, she moved with her family to Alexandria, Virginia, when she was appointed Assistant Rector of Grace Church for six years.

In 2003, she moved to Virginia when she became the third Rector of Saint Francis Church in Great Falls, just 20 miles from Washington. DC. Once she had settled there, she returned to her childhood love of music. “I dusted off my long-neglected viola and rediscovered the joy of playing in orchestra and chamber ensembles, while participating in the leadership of the region, diocese, and ecumenical community.”

At Saint Francis, she has officiated at funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, has hosted a service for grieving Virginia Tech alumni in April 2007, and has navigated the challenging schedules of Washington professionals and their families. She says the parish has remained “intact while the church has endured conflict over human sexuality and millennial shifts in attitudes to institutions.”

In the Diocese of Virginia, she has served on the diocesan Standing Committee and as the Dean of Region Five, and co-chairs the Great Falls Ecumenical Council. She is the recipient of a 2008 Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal grant and a 2010 Austin Seminary College Pastoral Leaders grant. But she maintains her life-long love of music – she plays viola in the McLean Orchestra and sings with the Amadeus Community Singers.

She is sad when she talks of how her marriage “ended by mutual consent during my time at Saint Francis.” She describes her two adult sons as “fine young men, who have graduated from college and are contemplating graduate school.”

She says becoming Bishop of New Hampshire would be a bit of a homecoming because she was active at Grace Church in Manchester for nine years. She said her call to the priesthood was “closely entwined” with her call to motherhood and that her “primary spiritual gift is that of pastor or shepherd.”

“Some of the most powerful moments of my ministry have occurred when I have shown up in response to a difficult situation: a death, a criminal act, a broken relationship,” she wrote. “As your bishop, I would show up.”

Penny Bridges has been impressed by the New Hampshire diocesan profile and what is called “modest year-to-year growth.”

“It is significant that the church is growing in a diocese which has led the way in radical inclusion, and we should learn from this and apply the same values across the church,” she wrote. “When our church tries to avoid conflict by shying away from the work of social justice, we lose the possibility of offering a compelling narrative, and membership declines. New Hampshire is living by example in embracing the gifts of all people; this example is to be nurtured and strengthened.”

Figures from the Episcopal Church’s Office of Congregational Vitality show the diocese lost members from 2004 to 2007 but began regaining them in 2007. As of 2010, both baptised members and average Sunday attendance remained lower than in 2003. Pledge and plate income, however, steadily increased from 2004 to 2007, and remained higher than in 2003.

The Revd Penny Bridges ... one of three candidates for election as Bishop of New Hampshire next month

The following interview with the Revd Penny Bridges has been published by the Diocese of New Hampshire in advance of next month’s election:

Based upon your current knowledge of the Diocese of New Hampshire, what excites you and calls you into our job discernment?

I read the diocesan profile with a sense of renewing an old and dear friendship, and many aspects of it called forth delighted recognition. Two phrases from the diocesan profile particularly leapt out at me: first, the statement that “the primary role of our next bishop is that of pastor”; and, second, “We are a varied flock seeking a shepherd who will be devoted to us and who will enter our fold with a true sense of homecoming”. Both of these statements resonate deeply with me.

My primary spiritual gift is that of pastor or shepherd. While liturgy, preaching, teaching, and administration are important parts of my vocation, the pastoral dimension reaches deeply into my soul. Serving in ordained ministry is a privilege, and the opportunity to offer pastoral care is at the core of that privilege.

Whether I am meeting with a clergy colleague, a neighbour, a trusted vestry member or one of those “wayward lambs” found in every congregation, a pastoral encounter never fails to leave me with a deep gratitude for the God we serve and the church we are. I have repeatedly found myself serving as pastor to my fellow clergy. New Hampshire has set a standard for radical hospitality and inclusivity, both in the Episcopal Church and in the Church writ large. You epitomise the broad umbrella of Anglicanism, and I am Anglican to the core, having grown up in the Church of Ireland and the Church of England.

Statements in the profile about walking closely with clergy and laity in love and prayer, journeying sacramentally together in a collegial relationship, being comfortable with tradition and open to change: all of these made me smile as I imagined a possible future with you. I will not pretend that the prospect of being called to serve as Bishop doesn’t fill me with terror, but it is a holy terror, and I have never regarded fear as an adequate excuse to hold back from doing what God asks of me.

Returning to the second statement I quoted above, about homecoming: this is where I recognise a particular and personal bond with New Hampshire, for it was in this diocese that I first experienced life in America, arriving from England in 1985. It was in this diocese that I was welcomed into the Episcopal Church, the choir of Grace
Church, Manchester, becoming my extended family and forming my immediate community for nine very happy years. It was in this diocese that I experienced two irresistible calls, first to motherhood and then to ordained ministry. It was this diocese that formed me for service and that generously sent me out to serve the church beyond its bounds. And so I can embrace the statement about homecoming with my whole heart.

If, after 18 years away, I return to New Hampshire as your bishop, it will indeed be with a true sense of homecoming.

Identify the top three issues or trends in the life of the Episcopal Church today and tell how our diocese might best respond to these issues and trends?

It is widely reported, and largely true, that church attendance is declining across denominations and throughout the Episcopal Church. New Hampshire, happily, is not following the trend, but the challenge of bringing people into the church is real and invites us to be creative and courageous in our response to the Great Commission of Christ.

The small growth that New Hampshire is experiencing is a sign of the Holy Spirit’s activity, and we are called to find ways to fan that small spark into a flame. It is significant that the church is growing in a diocese which has led the way in radical inclusion, and we should learn from this and apply the same values across the church. When our church tries to avoid conflict by shying away from the work of social justice, we lose the possibility of offering a compelling narrative, and membership declines.

New Hampshire is living by example in embracing the gifts of all people; this example is to be nurtured and strengthened.

A related challenge is the aging of our congregations. We must engage with the millennial generation who are now coming into full adulthood. This generation holds very different values from the current church leadership, and we must learn to do church differently if we are to allow the Holy Spirit to speak to young people through our traditions. A church hierarchy that is transparent, joyful, open to mystery, non-judgmental, willing to question and to be wrong occasionally will offer appeal for our young people, but there is more to be learned and fundamental change to be effected if we are to be a church for the 21st century.

A third challenge, also related to the two above, is that of stewardship, both of time and money. We can go through all sorts of complicated manoeuvres, trying to fund our programs through the same kinds of fundraising programs that we used 40 or 50 years ago, but we are wasting our energy. We expect people to offer the same kind of volunteer time that our parents offered to the church; this is unrealistic.

The post-boomer generations have a completely different attitude to institutional support; they demand accountability and genuine relationship before they will offer their loyalty or their precious resources. In the 1980s, Loren Mead said that the church will have to learn to “breathe underwater.” We are still trying to hold our breath, and we are severely handicapped by our feeble adaptation.

The larger societal context of societal diversity, divisiveness and social change leaves many with a sense of pessimism, anxiety and even despair. How have you proclaimed a message of hope during these difficult times?

A wise old priest once said that each preacher has, essentially, one sermon, which he or she preaches in different guises and to different texts but which always carries the same message. If this is true of me, my one sermon is, “God loves you: live like you believe it!”

We live in a society that is riddled with fear. The world is changing very quickly; the world we now inhabit is almost unrecognisable as the world of half a century ago. We are bombarded with images and information, far more than we can process or respond to. Our souls are overloaded with knowledge of the worst suffering of humanity, while we feel helpless to heal it. We are destroying our planet with our wasteful lifestyle and yet everything around us pushes us to consume more, to risk less, to achieve and acquire endlessly. It is no wonder that we are consumed with anxiety and despair.

The remedy, as people of faith have always known, is to restore our relationship with God. If we can find a way to recalibrate our lives, to set ourselves right, we can start to transform the world by living in the Kingdom of God.

We are called to live in gratitude, counting our blessings every day, giving thanks for the gift of life and of everything that is placed in our care.

We are called to acknowledge both our dependence on God and our own imperfection and inadequacy. We are called to care for each other in Christ’s name. The only reason to change our lives in this way is if we can convince ourselves that we are truly lovable and deeply loved, and that is where the Gospel, preached with conviction and joy and imagination, can reach our broken hearts and make them whole. One cannot live in hope when one is in the first shock of grieving a loss, and the way we live our lives exposes us to one shock of grief after another, with little opportunity for a thoughtful journey through the valley of the shadow. It is only after we have travelled through that valley and emerged into the light on the other side that we can live healed and Spirit-filled lives. I preach the reality of all that burdens us, and I hold up the greater reality of faith in the crucified and risen Christ as our spiritual destination.

As we struggle with issues of the world, how might you get in the trenches with us and lead us prayerfully out of our churches into the communities?

A guiding principle of my ministry is one that was preached by Clare Fischer-Davies at my ordination to the priesthood: ordained ministry is first and foremost a ministry of showing up.

Some of the most powerful moments of my ministry have occurred when I have shown up in response to a difficult situation: a death, a criminal act, a broken relationship. I often had no idea what I would say or do when I got there, but I knew that my presence was needed.

As your bishop I would show up. I would be there at times of crisis and of celebration. I would visit clergy and lay leaders in the hospital. I would develop and renew relationships with Episcopalians across the diocese, so that you would know and trust me to accompany you, in person or in spirit, in your journey. I would develop friendships with leaders of other denominations and with civic leaders so that the Episcopal Church would have a voice in wider conversations. I would use whatever resources I could to support ministries of outreach and mission, opening the doors and breaking down the walls of the church to those who might otherwise never come near us. I would pray regularly and with intention for every congregation and its leadership. I would be available to clergy for pastoral care, counsel, and referrals.

My current church started a farmers’ market in our parking lot. Our hope was to help Great Falls become a more cohesive community and perhaps to attract new people to our congregation. As it turned out, the market found a better site in the centre of the town and moved within a few weeks of opening, but we achieved our first goal and the market is now a central aspect of our community life during the growing season.

We open our doors to AA, Cotillion, a dog trainer, exercise classes, Boy Scouts, and musical organisations. I would encourage the congregations of New Hampshire to make their facilities available to the community as fully as possible; people need opportunities to connect with each other and to build relationships. Churches are often the most suitable building in a community for such opportunities, and we waste the resources entrusted to us when we do not make our churches fully available for community life.

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