Episcopalians of Eastern Massachusetts on Saturday elected the Rev. Alan M. Gates, rector of a large church in Ohio, to succeed Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, who will retire in September after a 20-year tenure.
Gates, 56, will lead a diverse and active diocese with 183 congregations and 63,000 baptized members, but one that, like most mainline Christian churches, continues to struggle with attracting young people and with meeting the spiritual needs of a society that has drifted away from institutions and organized religion.
He is no stranger to the area. He attended seminary in Cambridge and started his career as a priest at churches in Hingham and Ware before moving to the Midwest in 1996. In Cleveland Heights, he oversees 2,000 members and a staff of 25 at St. Paul’s Church, and he helped found an interfaith social justice organization.
Before entering seminary, he served as a Russian language translator, researcher, and intelligence analyst for the Department of Defense.
In a brief phone interview Saturday, Gates said he would probably be in Boston by midsummer, and that he was “honored and humbled and thrilled and daunted — and all of those things.”
He said he planned to spend his first year in office as the parishes’ “historian and lover” — learning their stories and building “a relationship of trust and collegiality” with them.
“My eagerness is to shepherd the congregations, and to support the faithful and the clergy who serve the parishes,” he said. “What direction we go will be very much determined together.”
With the consent of a majority of the dioceses and diocesan bishops in the Episcopal Church, Gates will be consecrated bishop Sept. 13.
Gates topped a field of seven candidates, including four local clergy, after a protracted and colorful voting session at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul that featured two scrapped ballots due to mathematical errors, the reentry of four withdrawn candidates after the errors were discovered, and, at one point, the singing of “Take Me out to the Ballgame” to pass the time.
A search committee selected five of the seven candidates on the ballot, including Gates, announcing its choices in mid-January. Two more local candidates were added to the slate by a special petition process.
Several of those gathered Saturday said Gates impressed many during a series of meet-the-candidates sessions held in mid-March. “He certainly came across as very, very smart, as well as thoughtful and prayerful,” said James Wagner, president of the diocesan Standing Committee, which advises the bishop.
The Rev. Robert Edson, who oversaw Gates when Gates was a young curate at St. John the Evangelist church in Hingham in the late 1980s, called his former assistant “the finest priest I’ve known in a long time.”
He said his onetime junior colleague became a pastor to Edson when Edson’s wife grew ill and died, offering the elder priest enormous comfort. “He is an excellent preacher, a person of prayer, and he is very caring about people and feelings,” Edson said. “He also has a tremendous sense of humor.”
The voting errors were pinpointed after the more than 600 clergy and lay electors had cast three ballots, and four of the lower-scoring candidates had withdrawn their names from the contest. The winner needed a majority of support from the two houses of electors — clergy and lay representatives.
Diocesan leaders realized the total number of lay votes cast in the first round was larger than the total registered. They eventually discovered they had incorrectly tabulated the ballots in the first round of voting. So, with the consent of the electing convention, they declared the second two rounds invalid and initiated a fourth round with the original seven-candidate slate.
But in the meantime, voters seemed to have made their minds up. Gates was elected in that fourth round, garnering 188 of the 325 lay ballots cast and 157 of the 287 clergy ballots cast.
The next-highest vote-getters in the final round of voting were the Rev. Samuel S. Rodman III, a project manager for campaign initiatives for the diocese, with 69 lay votes and 80 clergy votes; the Rev. Ledlie I. Laughlin, rector of St. Peter’s Church in Philadelphia, who received 34 lay votes and 16 clergy votes; and the Rev. Timothy E. Crellin, vicar of St. Stephen’s Church in the South End, who received 28 lay votes and 19 clergy votes.
The Rev. Holly Lyman Antolini, rector of St. James’s Church in Cambridge, the Rev. Ronald D. Culmer, rector of St. Clare’s Church and School in Pleasanton, Calif., and the Rev. Margaret Ewing Lloyd, a top diocesan official, were also on the ballot.
The congregation remained patient throughout the nearly seven-hour worship service and election, and between more serious moments of prayer, chanting, and silent contemplation, they displayed a lively sense of humor.
Most seemed to agree that leaders had taken the right course by throwing out the second two rounds of voting.
“I think it’s important that everything be done in the open, and fairly,” said Jill Onderdonk, a lay representative from St. John’s Episcopal Church in Westwood.
The candidates remained sanguine as well.
“It’s human error, and we are a community of grace,” Rodman said.
It was a poignant session, too. Shaw learned he had brain cancer last year, shortly after announcing his retirement. Although his voice sounded a bit weak at times, he seemed as much himself as ever, sometimes joking gently, sometimes reminding the crowd of the seriousness of their work.
Afterward, he smiled as he spoke in a brief interview about his successor.
“I think he’s a great pastor, and I think that he’ll bring some of the really creative work we’re trying to do with young people, and justice issues . . . and bring more out of the people to do the witness of this diocese,” Shaw said.