Clad in the bright orange regalia of his office for what he called his last public appearance, retired bishop M. Thomas Shaw said goodbye Saturday to thousands of faithful at the consecration of his successor to lead the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, marking the end of a nearly 20-year tenure during which he fought for social justice and the church’s relevancy.
Shaw, who became bishop in 1995, is succeeded by the Rev. Alan M. Gates, previously a rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland. A Massachusetts native married with two adult sons, Gates cuts a different figure than Shaw, a celibate monk who came out as gay a few years ago. Shaw announced in January of 2013 that he would be stepping down, several months before he was diagnosed with cancer.
A vocal advocate for gay rights in the church and in East Africa, Shaw nevertheless made efforts to compromise with traditional factions in his own diocese. It was only in 2009, more than five years after gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, for example, that he allowed priests to officiate at gay weddings.
The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, established in 1784, is among the Episcopal Church’s oldest and largest in terms of baptized membership, comprising more than 180 parishes in eastern Massachusetts.
On Saturday, Shaw handed Gates a staff and other objects symbolizing a bishop’s leadership. The two warmly embraced before an audience of about 3,000 at Boston University’s Agganis Arena.
Transition and faith were the theme of the nearly three-hour event, during which hundreds of clergy and lay people participated in a colorful and lighthearted ceremony presided over by the rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, bishop of the Diocese of Maine. The rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr., bishop of the Diocese of Ohio, was the preacher.
During the transition ritual, Shaw and a coterie of bishops placed their hands on the bishop-elect’s head, passing on energy said to date back to the apostles. Afterward, a smiling Gates was given his own set of robes and mitre as the audience clapped.
When Hollingsworth took a moment to praise Shaw, the audience gave a standing ovation that ended only when a visibly humbled Shaw signaled for everyone to sit.
After the ceremony, Gates praised Shaw’s work during the past decades, particularly his youth ministries. Since his election in April, the two men have met frequently to discuss his new role and priorities for the church, he said.
Shaw “affirmed the traditional form of church but was also attentive to changes in faith practices,” he said. “He was always looking forward.”
Hollingsworth said he wasn’t surprised at the standing ovation Shaw received during his sermon, remarking that people really care for him. Followers and church leaders were devastated to learn he had cancer, said Hollingsworth, who has known Shaw for 30 years.
“He’s led the people of this diocese in building a spiritual and institutional strength,” he said.
Warren Dunn, who came with a group from the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham to see the ceremony, recalled how Shaw took over at a tumultuous time for the diocese. His predecessor, David E. Johnson, took his own life after engaging in extramarital affairs, and Shaw dedicated his early years to healing rifts in the community.
“There was a lot of stuff going on at the time,” Dunn, 71, said. “He brought a sense of community.”
Ann Austin, from Christ Church in Cambridge, said she would always remember him for his dedication to social justice issues, such as when he joined Palestinian sympathizers protesting in front of the Israeli Consulate, enduring insults from counterprotesters.
The action shook interfaith relations in Boston, and led to Shaw’s meeting more often with Jewish leaders to discuss how Christians can help end the conflict.
“He cared,” she said. “He would stand with the crowds.”
Correction: Because of reporting errors, an earlier version of this story misidentified the Rt. Rev. Mark Hollingsworth Jr. He is the current bishop of the Diocese of Ohio. It also misidentified the priest who presided over the consecration; it was presided over by the Rt. Rev. Stephen T. Lane, bishop of the Diocese of Maine. The story also failed to clarify that retired bishop M. Thomas Shaw announced his retirement several months before he was diagnosed with cancer.