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Rust Belt change-manager elected as next US Presiding Bishop

27 June 2024

SCOTT GUNN/ENS

Dr Rowe addresses the US General Convention on Wednesday after his election as the next Presiding Bishop

Dr Rowe addresses the US General Convention on Wednesday after his election as the next Presiding Bishop

THE next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States will be the Bishop of Northwestern Pennsylvania, Dr Sean Rowe — the youngest bishop ever elected to the primacy.

Dr Rowe, now 49, was the youngest Episcopalian priest in the United States when he was ordained in 2000, aged 24, and then became the youngest member of the House of Bishops when he was consecrated for his current see in 2007, aged 32.

The House of Bishops elected him on its first ballot on Wednesday during the meeting of the 81st General Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, granting him 89 votes out of a total of 158. He will succeed the Most Revd Michael Curry, the Episcopal Church’s first Black Presiding Bishop.

The result was later announced publicly in the afternoon session of the House of Deputies, which confirmed his election with a 95-per-cent vote in favour, followed by applause, the Episcopal News Service reports. In his remarks, Dr Rowe said that the Church faced an “existential crisis”, suggesting that “God is calling us ever more deeply into the unknown.”

Born in Sharon, western Pennsylvania, Dr Rowe is a graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary. Before his consecration, he served a small congregation in his home diocese, which more than doubled in size under his incumbency.

“I sometimes think of this moment in the Episcopal Church’s history in terms of the history of my region of the United States,” Dr Rowe told the Convention after his election. “I am from the Rust Belt, and, in the economic unravelling that has befallen our communities in the last 50 years, I have been around to see things I love go away.

“My grandfathers were steel workers, and nearly my entire family worked in industry. In the space of a few years in the mid-1980s, when I was in elementary school, I watched everything I had known evaporate. . . People in our region are resilient, but we spent years resisting the change that was forced on us, wishing things would go back to being the way they had been.

“If we are honest with each other and ourselves, we know that we cannot continue to be the Episcopal Church in the same way, no matter where we live. To participate fully in God’s mission . . . we must reorient our Church-wide resources — budgets and staff — to support dioceses and congregations on the ground, where ministry on the ground happens.”

He continued: “The world around us is changed and continues to change and is changing all the time. God is calling us ever more deeply into the unknown.”

In 2014, Dr Rowe gained his doctorate in organisational learning and leadership at Gannon University, Erie.

As a bishop, he has been an outspoken critic of narratives of decline in the Episcopal Church, and an advocate of structural and cultural change. In a 2009 address at a meeting, held in the diocese of San Diego, on the future of the Churchhe noted that there were nearly one third more dioceses than in 1965, but fewer people. The Church was “absolutely addicted to autonomy”, he said, producing “a sense that we are on our own, that we do it ourselves — that we will compete with each other when what God is really calling us to is . . . deep collaboration”.

Aware of criticism of focusing on structure and management, he argued that “structure helps to shape and form behaviour.” While the Church was “the risen body of Christ in the world”, it was also “one of the oldest bureaucracies in the world”, he said.

“I believe that we do not have to settle for being a declining, dying Church. I think the idea that this Church is in decline, that we can’t do anything about it that, it’s never going to get much better, and what we are really going to have is a remnant of faithful people, is a lie straight out of hell.”

While there were no “quick fixes”, he spoke in favour of a “decentralised but networked Church”, which would shape the nation “from a missionary point of view . . . from the bottom up” rather than from its centre.

Dr Rowe has been critical of the Church for failing to learn from experience. After the Decade of Evangelism in the 1990s, there had been no evaluation of the results (“We have no idea why it didn’t work for us”), he told the 2009 meeting. Rather, the Church had moved swiftly to the 2000 vision to double in size by 2020.

Last year, it was reported that the number of baptised members of the Episcopal Church had fallen by 21 per cent in a decade, to just below 1.6 million, while average Sunday attendance had fallen by 43 per cent to 373,000.

Dr Rowe’s prescription — that “experimentation is going to be the key to the future” — was put into practice in 2018, when the dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York voted to share a bishop and staff for the next five years. Dr Rowe became Provision Bishop of Western New York the following year. The Bishop of Western New York, the Rt Revd William Franklin, described his friendship with Dr Rowe as the “least likely” — a friendship between an Anglo-Catholic church historian and a “very Low Church expert in adaptive change”.

The experiment came out of a “deep and abiding love for the region, but also a willingness to try to bring our gospel work to a scale where it could have a greater reach”, Dr Rowe told The Living Church in 2019. “One of the challenges we face in the Rust Belt is that the Episcopal Church has had a more favourable relationship with middle- and upper-class people. We’ve got a lot of white working-class people who feel left out.” As an example of “Rust Belt resurrection”, he referred to St Mark’s, Erie, which had grown from 35-40 to 180 in eight or nine years.

Dr Rowe, warning against the Church’s settling for being “an urban-suburban phenomenon”, has described small churches as “critical” to their communities. He has also called for reform of the Church’s handling of abuse. In 2010, he announced that one of his predecessors as Bishop of North­western Pennsylvania had abused young girls at a diocesan summer camp and in other church settings, more than 30 years earlier.

In an article for the magazine The Christian Century, he warned of “dysfunctional and destructive structures that render even church officials who genuinely care about children and their well-being incapable of confronting abuse effectively”.

In remarks made after his election at the Convention, Dr Rowe said: “Make no mistake, reorienting our structures, our budgets, and our relationships will only matter if we do it for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Our goal must be to invest more heavily in creation care, evangelism, and racial reconciliation at every level of the Church. And, thanks to the leadership of General Convention and Presiding Bishop Curry, we have embraced those core ministry priorities since 2015. Now, our world needs us to address them even more strategically and more effectively.”

Dr Rowe is married to Carly Rowe, a Christian educator, and they have an 11-year-old daughter, Lauren. Dr Rowe begins his nine-year term as Presiding Bishop on 1 November.

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