Thu. Jul 25th, 2024

The Episcopal Church elected its youngest top leader since the 18th century at the denomination’s national meeting in Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday.

Bishop Sean Rowe of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, 49, was elected to a nine-year term as presiding bishop from a slate of five candidates. Bishop Rowe also serves as bishop provisional of the Diocese of Western New York.

Bishop Rowe will succeed Bishop Michael Curry, who emphasized evangelism, racial justice, and the power of love in his tenure as the denomination’s first Black presiding bishop. Bishop Curry’s term concludes at the end of October, and Bishop Rowe’s installation ceremony will be held on Nov. 2.

The Episcopal Church, based in New York, is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a global body whose head is the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. The U.S. branch of the church has been the faith home of many presidents, including George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt, and George H.W. Bush.

Bishop Rowe became the youngest Episcopal priest in the United States upon his ordination in 2000, and the youngest bishop seven years later. Originally from western Pennsylvania, he has served in a number of leadership roles in the national denomination.

Addressing his fellow bishops and delegates to the meeting after his election, Bishop Rowe called for the church to be courageous and resilient heading into what he described as an “existential crisis” caused by a changing world. He suggested he would encourage the denomination to focus on local dioceses and congregations, and streamline its national structure so it doesn’t “collapse under its own weight.”

He compared the denomination’s uncertain status to his experience growing up in western Pennsylvania in the 1980s, as factories closed and friends moved away. But he also expressed optimism. “God is calling us ever more deeply into the unknown,” he said. “Let us follow Jesus into this unknown future filled with hope.”

He will take leadership of a denomination whose membership now stands at 1.4 million, a more than a 20 percent decline over the previous decade. Sunday church attendance has also dropped steadily in that period.

Like many global church bodies, the broader Anglican Communion remains divided on questions around sexuality, with church leaders in Africa in particular opposing homosexuality. Bishop Curry’s tenure began just months after the Episcopal Church opted to bless same-sex marriages in 2015, a decision he defended to members of the global Anglican Communion who strongly opposed the marriages.

Bishop Curry’s public profile rose when he was selected by Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to deliver the sermon at their wedding in 2018. He preached on the topic of love, quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. and the biblical prophet Amos, and ruffling some aristocratic feathers with his preaching style drawn in part from the Black American church.

The Episcopal Church is one of the historic mainline Protestant denominations, which tend to be progressive in their theology and traditional in worship style. The mainline once dominated the American religious and social landscape but has experienced dramatic declines since the mid-20th century. The category also includes the United Methodist Church, which has lost a quarter of its U.S. congregations in recent years over disagreements on allowing practicing gay clergy, which the group voted to allow last month.

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