Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman picked to lead an Anglican province Sunday when she was elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, a groundbreaking and potentially divisive step that comes three years after the denomination ordained an openly gay bishop.
Standing before cheering delegates to the Episcopal General Convention, Jefferts Schori said she was “awed and honored and deeply privileged to be elected.” Outgoing Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was at her side as she was introduced after closed-door balloting.
The choice of Jefferts Schori may worsen — and could even splinter — the already difficult relations between the American denomination and its fellow Anglicans. Episcopalians have been sparring with many in the other 37 Anglican provinces over homosexuality, but a female leader adds a new layer of complexity to the already troubled relationship.
Only two other Anglican provinces — New Zealand and Canada — have female bishops, although some allow women to serve in the post.
Still, there are many Anglican leaders who believe women should not even be priests. Those opposed to female clergy often cite the unbroken tradition of male priesthood in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and in the Anglican Communion until about 30 years ago.
At the General Convention where Jefferts Schori was elected, delegates have been debating whether to appease Anglican leaders by agreeing to temporarily stop ordaining gay bishops.
In 2003, the Americans shocked the Anglican world by electing the first openly gay bishop — V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Placing a female bishop at the head of the denomination may further anger conservatives overseas and within the U.S. church. And Jefferts Schori voted to confirm Robinson.
“I will bend over backward to build relationships with people who disagree with me,” she pledged at a news conference.
Whether that will be enough will play out in the months ahead. The Rev. Canon Chris Sugden, a leader of the Anglican Mainstream, a Church of England conservative group, said Jefferts Schori’s election “shows that the Episcopal leadership is going to do what they want to do regardless of what it means to the rest of the communion.”
Episcopal bishops elected Jefferts Schori on the fifth ballot. She collected 95 votes, with 93 others split between the rest of the field — six candidates, all men. Other General Convention delegates confirmed the choice.
Gasps could be heard throughout the vast convention hall when Jefferts Schori’s name was announced. The Rev. Jennifer Adams from Western Michigan, speaking from the floor, called Jefferts Schori “a woman of integrity, consistency and faith. I have no doubt her election as presiding bishop will be a gift to our church.”
Yet several delegates said they feared the global consequences.
“I can’t help but consider the peculiar genius our church has for roiling the waters,” said the Rev. Eddie Blue of Maryland. “I am shocked, dismayed and saddened by the choice.”
The presiding bishop represents the Episcopal Church in meetings with other Anglican leaders and with leaders of other religious groups. But the presiding bishop’s power is limited because of the democratic nature of the church. The General Convention is the top Episcopal policy-making body and dioceses elect their own bishops.
Jefferts Schori is a former oceanographer who decided to become a priest after filling in as a preacher at her local church; she was ordained in 1994. She is a licensed pilot and is married with one daughter. She will be installed to her nine-year term at a ceremony Nov. 4 in Washington National Cathedral.
The new leader will inherit a shrinking and fractured church.
Membership in the Episcopal Church, as in other mainline Protestant groups, has been declining for years and has remained predominantly white. More than a quarter of the 2.3 million parishioners are age 65 or older.
The Pittsburgh-based Anglican Communion Network, which represents 10 U.S. conservative dioceses and more than 900 parishes within the Episcopal Church, is deciding whether to break from the denomination.
The network has a meeting scheduled for the end of July where it will craft its response to the convention. But Canon David Anderson, head of an allied group, the conservative American Anglican Council, said parishioners are “growing restless.”
“They’ve been telling us, ’Don’t tell us another meeting, another six months. We’re through with another meeting, another six months,”’ Anderson said. “If something isn’t done, mom and pop are leaving. And we’re seeing the erosion at a consistent rate.”