“I really love this church,” said Bishop J. Neil Alexander, the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta. “I am an Episcopalian by choice, and I consider myself daily blessed to be an Episcopalian.”
Raised in the Moravian tradition and Lutheran-educated, Alexander, 52, taught at several theological seminaries after his ordination as a Lutheran pastor in 1980. From 1984-87, he was professor and dean of Keffer Memorial Chapel at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary in Ontario, Canada.
He left to work on the final chapters of his dissertation and to teach the history of worship and liturgics at Yale Divinity School and Berkeley Divinity School in New Haven, Conn. In 1988, he was ordained deacon, then priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey. In 1989, he began teaching liturgics and preaching at the General Theological Seminary in New York, where he had begun doctoral studies in 1982 and earned a Th.D. in liturgics in 1993.
While Alexander’s head may have guided his transition into the Episcopal Church, his heart nurtured the journey; he found in the church’s liturgy, music and life of prayer “that missing piece of the spirituality” that marked his youth and early commitment to the church.
“I made my switch to the Episcopal Church and have been happy ever since,” said Alexander. “There are the structures and the theology and the people — so much about the Episcopal Church that I dearly love — but at the end of the day [it is] the profound spiritual connections that I have carried with me all my life, and the Episcopal Church makes room for those spiritual connections to flower.”
Commitment to daily prayer is one area of spiritual growth that was nurtured during the General years and when Alexander was a professor of homiletics and liturgics at the School of Theology-Sewanee in Tennessee for four years before becoming a bishop. “One of the gifts to me is to have a regular patterned life of prayer,” said Alexander. “Of course, spending 20 years of my life in the seminaries where part of what we inculcate and model for the students is not only a life of personal prayer but also the daily participation and the daily offices of the church. We ask the seminarians to do that for three years; as a faculty member, I did that for 20.
“That is simply part of the rhythm of my day,” he said. “I make time for it.”
Alexander was elected and consecrated bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta, which has 53,363 members in 93 congregations, in 2001. At the 2003 General Convention — the first for him in either deliberative house — Alexander was aware of the weight of the vote to consent to the election of New Hampshire’s openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson.
He explained later that he was inclined to honor the discernment of any diocesan selection process, but as the debate unfolded, he was on the verge of voting against consent. In the end, however, Alexander voted with the majority of bishops in favor.
At the conclusion of General Convention, Alexander put together a short, forthright treatise on how his views toward homosexuality have evolved over the years of his life and ministry. This Far By Grace: A Bishop’s Journey Through Questions About Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley Press, 2003) outlines the author’s confidence that the Episcopal Church is and should be moving toward full inclusion of homosexual people in the life and ministries of the church.
He also explained his decisions at General Convention and put forth his views on related questions of Scripture and tradition. “He is middle-of-the-road on a lot of things; he is really not an extremist in any direction,” said Hazel Glover, the president of the Standing Committee in the Diocese of Atlanta. “I think he really values keeping folks at the table.“I think because he came out of an academic background, he was a bit surprised by some of the response in the parishes,” said Glover, who is rector of St. Margaret’s, Carrollton, “because he [had] already thought through it.
“But he didn’t shut down or hold fast to what he knew,” she said. “He was open to hear and to experience what was really going on.” Wesley Smith, rector at Christ Church, Macon, said he believes Alexander is a “non-anxious presence” with an ability to work with people with divergent opinions. He credits Alexander’s leadership as a factor that helped the diocese “come away from the decision loving each other and staying together.”
Gini Peterson, a lay deputy to General Convention in 2000 and an alternate in 2003 and 2006, remembers the bishop attending a “fiery forum” concerning the Robinson decision at her church, St. Matthew’s, Snellville.
“One of the things that impresses me is that he stays so cool. He just doesn’t fly off the handle or lose his head or get impatient with people,” said Peterson. “Even if he has an opinion in mind, he has the strength of character that allows him to hear other people and sometimes to change or to act in a different way other than his own personal opinion if it is for the good of the church.”
Alexander’s effort to balance his own views with those of the whole church is reflected in another action of General Convention in 2003. Convention Resolution C051 recognized that, while the blessing of same-gender relationships does occur within the life of the Episcopal Church, the church is not prepared to develop liturgical rites of blessing.
In This Far By Grace, Alexander explained his support for the church to develop such rites. He returned to Atlanta, however, and reiterated his view that no such blessings should occur until the church is decided about the issue.
“The bishop’s stand on that is that he will not approve such blessings until such time as the church [through] General Convention makes that possible,” explained Peterson, who serves on the Standing Committee. “When the church says no, then the answer here is no. One of our priests did perform such a blessing, and the bishop reprimanded him.”
In the summer of 2004, a well-known author and priest in the diocese conducted a blessing of a same-gender relationship. After consulting with the Standing Committee, the bishop inhibited the priest for 90 days. “I know it was painful for him,” said the Macon priest, Wesley Smith. “It got everyone’s attention.”
“It was never a personal thing,” reflected Alexander, who said he considers the priest a close friend. “His first approach is always pastoral,” concluded Peterson, “trying to help [people] through these things. But the bottom line [is]: He is the bishop, and he has had to make some hard stands. And he is able to do it.”
Alexander holds a strong perspective on the Anglican identity of the Episcopal Church and knows that the next presiding bishop will have a significant role in articulating the tradition and strengthening the relationships.
“I really believe that the genius of Anglicanism is the marvelous international web of relationships. It is not about structures; it’s about relationships,” said Alexander. “I think the presiding bishop has to play a pretty key role in keeping us focused on the fact that what’s not going to save us is structures and resolutions and agreements. What is going to be important to us are relationships.”
Alexander said he believes that the first order of business for the Episcopal Church -- and therefore him if he is elected presiding bishop -- is literally to get its house in order.
“I think the presiding bishop needs to attend to the House of Bishops — programmatically, administratively and pastorally.” He appreciates that Episcopal Church leadership is not invested solely in the House of Bishops, he said, but “the House of Bishops plays a major role in setting the tone of the conversation [and] helping to create the culture in which the conversation is going to go on.”
Alexander also said he was enthusiastic “that we have 20/20 on the table.” As the Episcopal Church grows, he explained, it is important that its Anglican identity is not lost or compromised.
‘We often [think], ‘How we can make ourselves more user-friendly?’” said Alexander. But, he said, “I don’t think we do ourselves a lot of favors [by doing] Episcopal-lite.” The Episcopal Church “is probably not a church for everyone, every kind of believer,” he said. “But for a lot of us, it’s an exciting and life-giving and spiritually motivating place to be.
“I am very excited,” he said “about the future of the Episcopal Church and being a part of it in whatever way that comes forth.”