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New bishop assumes leadership of Mass. Episcopalians on Saturday

The Rev. Alan M. Gates.
The Rev. Alan M. Gates.(Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

A former linguist, the Rev. Alan M. Gates looks to etymology to describe his theological understanding of the role of the church. At its root, the word religion does not just describe a system of beliefs and practices, he said, but also the ties that bind us all.

On Saturday, Gates will assume responsibility for fostering such connections among area Episcopalians, as he is consecrated as the new bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts.

He succeeds Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, the longtime leader of the diocese.

Gates, 56, the former rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was elected in April to lead the Massachusetts Diocese, home to 183 congregations and 63,000 baptized members.

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In an interview Friday, Gates described the unifying, uplifting power of religion as a guiding principle.

“I think that religion at its best is not focused exclusively on its doctrinal structures or belief systems, though of course they are core,” he said. “At its best, what it’s about is reconnecting, reconnecting us to God, reconnecting people to one another, and reconnecting people to the world around us.”

Gates has close ties to the area. He was born in Springfield, attended seminary in Cambridge, and was a priest in Western Massachusetts before moving to the Midwest in the mid-1990s. He said he felt privileged to begin his tenure as bishop and honored to follow Shaw.

Gates praised Shaw’s leadership over the past two decades as bishop, saying he had left the church in a strong position.

“The diocese is in really good shape,” he said. “It’s a really healthy place.”

Shaw, a monk known for his advocacy on economic and social issues, announced his retirement in January 2013 and learned he had brain cancer a short time later.

Under Shaw’s leadership, the diocese has become more vibrant and unified, Gates said.

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“It feels like there is a deeper and richer spiritual tone to the diocese,” he said. “There’s a much stronger sense of unity within the community of these 183 places than I experienced earlier. We have a different way of being together in that diversity.”

Gates, who is married with two adult sons, said he would quickly work to gain a better understanding of the individual congregations and the diocese as a whole.

Gates said he would begin by “getting to know the stories of the parishes and what’s been happening in the life of these congregations,” he said.

Gates said the Massachusetts Diocese has maintained church attendance better than its counterparts in other parts of the country. But he said churches must redouble their outreach at a time when many have drifted away from religion.

“The value of the role of the church is not presumed, culturally, as it might have been in other eras,” he said. “Fortunately, the church in Eastern Massachusetts hasn’t had to have a mind-set of survival, but has been able to continue a mind-set of mission.”

The younger generation tends to enter church life differently than in the past, Gates said, often seeking opportunities to volunteer and serve the community. In many cases, showing up on Sunday mornings comes later, he said.

“As a generalization, prior generations have tended to enter the life of the church through worship,” he said. “But the current generation is tending to enter at a different point. The thing that they are more apt to, by God’s grace, presume, is that it’s important to serve.”

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In Cleveland, Gates’s parish found a partnership with a a small church on the verge of extinction to reach some of the graduate students in the neighborhood by providing opportunities to do “meaningful things in the community.”

But over time, “many found their way to Sunday morning,” he said. The mix of younger newcomers with the “tiny, faithful remnant” of longtime worshippers, proved valuable to both groups, he said.

“What didn’t work were all the latest formulas for evangelism,” he said. “What worked was to figure out who were the people that lived in that neighborhood and what did they need. How could the church serve them, and how could the church help them serve others.”

Gates said he has long opposed the spread of gambling and supports the referendum to repeal casinos, which he says harm the poor. While casinos come with the promise of jobs and economic growth, the reality rarely matches the rhetoric, he said.

“In no way has a casino in downtown Cleveland reversed the economic challenge of that city,” he said.

Gates graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont. Before attending seminary, he was a Russian language translator and intelligence analyst for the US Department of Defense and studied linguistics at Georgetown University.

Saturday’s ceremony will be held at Boston University’s Agganis Arena and is expected to draw some 4,000 people, including 28 bishops.

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Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.