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As the eighth bishop to head the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania in its over 100 years of existence, the Right Reverend Sean W. Rowe knows that he is part of a rich tradition.

“All of the bishops who have preceded me did their best, in their own way, to convey the true message of our faith – which is that our Church is a Church that is grounded in tradition and Scripture, but it is also one that is open to all people,” says Bishop Rowe. “We bring a distinct voice to today’s religious landscape in our willingness to address various points of view and various lifestyles with creative tension.”

The Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania (which was originally known as the Episcopal Diocese of Erie after its see city) was born in 1910 when it was separated from the former Diocese of Pittsburgh, which was itself created out of the former Diocese of Pennsylvania. The General Convention which governs the wider Episcopal Church realized that these earlier dioceses were too large to be ministered to effectively, and that the congregations in these areas would be better served by belonging to smaller dioceses.

The diocese currently consists of 33 congregations in 13 counties of northwestern Pennsylvania (Erie, Crawford, Venango, Forest, McKean, Warren, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Elk, Jefferson, Lawrence and Mercer).

The first bishop of the new diocese, the Rt. Rev. Rogers Israel (who headed the diocese from 1910 to 1921), was known as the “soldier bishop” because of his service as a popular chaplain in World War I. After the war ended, he questioned whether all of the slaughter was justified, and was criticized by society as a pacifist.

The Rt. Rev. John Chamberlain Ward (bishop from 1921 to 1943), who served during the depths of the Great Depression, was called a socialist by some because he deplored the “extremes of poverty and wealth” in American society. He also supported Prohibition, advocated the United States’ participation in the League of Nations, and denounced fascism and the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany during the years leading up to World War II.

The Rt. Rev. Edward Pinkney Wroth only served as bishop from 1943 to 1946 due to his sudden death, but during his brief tenure he warned against complacency and declining morals. His successor, the Rt. Rev. Harold E. Sawyer (1946 – 1951), had an easier stint because of the prosperity of the post-war years but also saw danger in the breakdown of family life and the nuclear threat of the Cold War.

The Rt. Rev. William Crittenden (1951 – 1973) oversaw the passing of measures on adoption, child care, aid to poor nations, mental health, and political refugees in his early years as bishop. He also opposed gambling and the extension of liquor sales, and spoke out against racial segregation and the Vietnam War.

The Rt. Rev. Donald J. Davis (1973 – 1991) advocated the ordination of women, urged open discussion on abortion, and appointed a commission that raised $1.5 million to improve church facilities. His successor, the Rt. Rev. Robert D. Rowley (1991 – 2007), emphasized evangelism and personal commitment, addressed a shortage of Episcopal clergy, and called for an avoidance of extremes on the subject of human sexuality.

Bishop Rowe is the youngest bishop in the Episcopal Church as well as the first bishop of the diocese to be elected from within the diocese. He comes to his episcopate with a clear awareness of the challenges facing his parishioners, such as declining church attendance, education, and poverty.

“In many ways, our region is looking for a new vocation, given the loss of industry and the changing demographics,” he says.

Bishop Rowe is working toward an integrated identity within the diocese in a number of ways – not only through community action and outreach programs such as youth summer camps, food pantries, picnics and dinners, but also by “using these activities to create vibrant communities of faith which will carry out God’s mission through transformational ministry.”

When Rowe speaks of transformational ministry, he defines it as a ministry which “deals with the systemic issues in a community, and believes in the power of God to take a situation and change or transform it into something new, something with hope.” In addition to the priests and lay leaders who are exercising this transformational leadership in the congregations, there are also deacons throughout the diocese whose specific call to ministry is to bring the needs of the world to the church and to lead the church out into the world to address those needs. In Erie County there are seven Episcopal churches, including the Cathedral of St. Paul, all of which care for the needs of the people in the community in different ways.

“Truth, healing, and reconciliation to God in Jesus Christ,” he says, “will be the diocese’s guiding strategy as we begin our second century.”

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