Five nominees are in the running to succeed Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, who has led the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts for almost two decades and plans to retire in September.
The candidates — announced Wednesday by the diocesan Standing Committee, which advises the bishop — include two local priests, as well as a third with ties to Massachusetts. The nominees, who range in age from 49 to 61, include one African-American candidate and one woman.
Episcopalians will have a chance to get to know the nominees in mid-March, when meet-and-greet sessions will be held at a variety of parishes in advance of the April 5 election.
The winner must receive a majority of support of two houses of electors: ordained clergy and lay representatives. With the consent of a majority of the bishops and the dioceses of the Episcopal Church of America, the new bishop will be consecrated Sept. 13.
Other names may be added to the list by clergy and laypeople during a petition period that ends Jan. 31.
The Standing Committee will review any submissions and announce any additions to the slate March 1.
The Diocese of Massachusetts includes 183 congregations in Eastern Massachusetts and counts more than 63,000 baptized members.
“The new bishop will need to have a pretty quick handle on all those differing voices, but then will need to develop his or her own voice and own vision, because you can’t make everybody happy all the time,” said James Wagner, president of the Standing Committee.
The new bishop will inherit a large and relatively diverse church that in recent years has become increasingly experimental and involved in public policy issues, particularly gun control and antiviolence work. Shaw, a celibate monk, has been unusually vocal — and sometimes controversial — in the public square.
The diocese is known for being progressive and leading the way on diversity. In 1970, John Melville Burgess was installed as the first African-American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church, and in 1989, Barbara Harris became the first elected female bishop in the Anglican Communion.
Like most mainline Protestants, local Episcopalians are struggling to figure out how to attract young people and reach a growing demographic often referred to as the “nones,” who do not identify with any organized religion. Fourteen congregations in the diocese closed their doors between 2006 and 2012.
But the diocese is thriving in many ways. It recently completed a $20 million fund-raising drive to support a variety of initiatives.
“This isn’t someone who is coming in to fix the diocese. This is someone coming in [who needs to help it] to not fall backward, to move ahead, keep it going, to not be stodgy,” said Fredrica Harris Thompsett, a theologian and historian at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge and a lay leader in the church.
The Rev. Liz Steinhauser, director of youth programs at St. Stephen’s Church in Boston, which has led the diocese in developing programs for urban youth, said she hopes the next bishop “will care as deeply about urban issues and young people as Bishop Shaw does.”
The nominees include the Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini, 61, rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church in Cambridge, who previously served in Virginia and Maine and describes herself as a “pilgrim in search of environmental sustainability.”
She said in a brief phone interview Wednesday that if elected bishop, she sees herself following in Shaw’s tradition of being involved in public life.
“One of the great things about being an Episcopalian is that it’s really clear to us that incarnation of Jesus Christ is an invitation to be groundedly involved in places where people are disadvantaged and voiceless,” she said.
The Rev. Ronald D. Culmer, 49, rector of St. Clare’s Episcopal Church in Pleasanton, Calif., has worked on social justice initiatives, including work to combat homelessness, to help teenagers in need of public transportation, and to address urban food deserts, areas where fresh, healthy, and affordable food is hard to obtain.
Asked in an interview about the “nones,” he called them “a great opportunity for the church “because they are not completely devoid of faith.”
“They’re just not sure about us,” he said.
The Rev. Ledlie I. Laughlin, rector of St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, has helped lead Episcopalians in Pennsylvania through a period of turmoil surrounding a former bishop.
Asked in an interview what he most wants Massachusetts Episcopalians to know about him, he said, “That I love Christ, have experienced the Episcopal Church to be a vibrant expression of the will of God, and that I see the Diocese of Massachusetts to be brimming with potential.”
The Rev. Alan M. Gates, 55, who previously served in Massachusetts, is rector of St. Paul’s Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where he helped establish an interfaith social justice organization.
He said his work with graduate students in Cleveland Heights has given him insight into what young people are looking for in a spiritual community, something different from a suburban church service, “but they are also looking for something that can tap them deeply into tradition.”
The Rev. Sam Rodman, 54, previously rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Milton, works for the Diocese of Massachusetts, overseeing projects funded by the $20 million campaign, including the effort to build “mission hubs,” collaborations among congregations to address community needs.
Asked about the social mission of the church in Massachusetts, he pointed to the need to address “the widening gap between the poorest in our society