Episcopal Protest of Top Bishop Increases
Monday, July 3, 2006
To visit Episcopal parishes across her huge but sparsely populated Nevada diocese, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori pilots a small airplane. She often bumps down on tiny airstrips, but wherever her single-engine Cessna 172 lands, she is welcome.
That's about to change.
On June 18, the Episcopal Church's General Convention elected Jefferts Schori to a nine-year term as the denomination's presiding bishop, making her the first woman to head any branch of the Anglican Communion, the worldwide family of churches descended from the Church of England.
Although she will not take up her new role until November, six U.S. dioceses already have rejected her authority, and that number is rising. Many church leaders expect that by the time she takes office, about five more, for a total of 10 percent of the nation's 111 Episcopal dioceses, will have joined the rejectionist camp.
Moreover, conservative Anglicans overseas have made no secret of their hope that the archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion, will not invite Jefferts Schori to the next gathering of the heads of the 38 constituent churches in 2008.
Gender is only part of the reason that some conservatives in the church are unhappy about her election. Jefferts Schori, 52, is also firmly planted in the U.S. church's dominant liberal wing. Three years ago, she voted with the majority of Episcopal bishops to approve the New Hampshire Diocese's election of V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion. She has allowed the blessing of same-sex couples in her Nevada diocese.
Most recently, she irritated some conservatives by speaking about "Mother Jesus" in a sermon.
Trained as a scientist as well as a theologian, she entered the priesthood relatively late in life, 12 years ago, after an initial career as an oceanographer specializing in octopuses and squids. Her husband is a retired professor of theoretical mathematics, and they have a daughter serving in the Air Force.
The Rev. Ian T. Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., said Jefferts Schori edged out six other candidates for presiding bishop because she is not only "whip smart" but also "very methodical, clear and measured" in her thinking.
To those who accuse her of heresy for referring to a female Jesus, she responds with a typically learned disquisition on medieval mystics and saints who used similar language, including Julian of Norwich and St. Teresa of Avila. "I was trying to say that the work of the cross was in some ways like giving birth to a new creation," she said. "That is straight-down-the-middle orthodox theology."
Yet she acknowledged that she likes to shake people up a bit.
"All language is metaphorical, and if we insist that particular words have only one meaning and the way we understand those words is the only possible interpretation, we have elevated that text to an idol," she said in a telephone interview. "I'm encouraging people to look beyond their favorite understandings."