Female Bishop Takes Helm of Episcopal Church

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Wearing multicolored vestments that represent a new dawn, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori formally took office yesterday as the first woman to lead the Episcopal Church and promised to seek healing and wholeness in a denomination threatened by schism.

Jefferts Schori, 52, a pilot, rock climber and former oceanographer whose surprise election in June deepened existing rifts over homosexuality and the authority of scripture, did not delve into those issues in her opening sermon as presiding bishop. But she did call for peace, intoning the Hebrew word "shalom" no fewer than seven times.

"If some in this church feel wounded by recent decisions, then our salvation, our health as a body, is at some hazard, and it becomes the duty of all of us to seek healing and wholeness," she said.

More than 3,000 people, including 150 bishops in crimson robes, packed the National Cathedral for the investiture ceremony, a symbolic blend of tradition and modernity.

Native American "smudgers" -- incense-bearing tribal leaders, mostly from Episcopal missions in Jefferts Schori's Nevada diocese -- filled the gothic cathedral with the aroma of smoldering cedar, sage and sweet grass.

A barefoot Chinese-style dancer waved aquamarine streamers. An African American gospel choir from Philadelphia sang "This is the Day." A female rabbi, an imam and an Anglican archbishop from South Africa presented Jefferts Schori with oil, representing the healing arts.

In the culminating rite of transition, her predecessor, Bishop Frank T. Griswold, handed her a gold and silver staff. She wore a chasuble and miter of purple, yellow, red and orange, representing the colors of sunrise.

Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, sent an emissary to offer his "prayers and best wishes" for her nine-year term. "She will take on this responsibility in the most challenging times," he said.

The 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion. Thirteen of the 38 churches in the communion have no female priests, much less bishops, and Jefferts Schori is the first woman to head any national church in the nearly 500-year history of Anglicanism.

Williams has accepted her election. He met privately with her at London's Lambeth Palace on Oct. 27, and he has invited her to the next gathering of the communion's 38 presiding bishops, or primates, in Tanzania in February.

But several primates in the Global South -- developing countries where Anglicanism is fast growing and deeply traditional -- have said that they will have difficulty sitting down with her, not so much because she is a woman as because of her views on homosexuality and theology.

Jefferts Schori, who is married to a theoretical mathematician and has a 25-year-old daughter serving as an Air Force pilot, voted in 2003 to confirm the election of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Anglican prelate. She has also supported blessings for same-sex couples, and she has said that, although she believes in salvation through Jesus, she does not think Christianity is the only path to God.

Those positions fall on one side of an increasingly bitter fault line in the U.S. church. Seven of the 111 Episcopal dioceses have rejected her authority, though they have stopped short of formally breaking away from the denomination. Some individual parishes have cut all ties to the Episcopal Church and have affiliated with more orthodox Anglican provinces overseas.

When delegates to the General Convention elected Jefferts Schori on June 18, "it was just one more thing -- but a highly symbolic one -- which caused us to consider whether we wish to continue in the Episcopal Church," said Warren Thrasher, a lay leader at Northern Virginia's 1,500-member Truro Church.

Truro and a sister congregation, the Falls Church, recently completed 40 days of internal discussions about their future and are to vote in mid-December on whether to leave the Episcopal Church, which could trigger a legal battle with the Virginia diocese over control of their buildings and other assets.

In the diocese of Washington, All Saints Church in Chevy Chase appears to have skirted a split, at least for now. It reached an accord last month with Bishop John B. Chane, who offered to share oversight of the restive congregation with a more conservative bishop, South Carolina's Edward Salmon.

Jefferts Schori has said she favors such arrangements and does not intend to disguise her views or to push them on others. The message of Jesus can be fulfilled, she said in yesterday's sermon, through "the will to make peace with one who disdains our theological position -- for his has merit, too, as the fruit of faithfulness."

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