New Criticism for Episcopal Bishop
Her Liberal Allies Wonder Why She Signed Ultimatum on Gays

By Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, is used to hostility from the right wing of her denomination. Now, she faces a rebellion among her longtime allies on the left.

With more puzzlement than rancor, liberal Episcopalians are questioning why Jefferts Schori signed an international statement last month that, in their view, demands a halt to 30 years of growing acceptance of gay men and lesbians.

"The overwhelming response I'm hearing is, 'Wait a minute! We're not prepared to turn back the clock,' " said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, academic dean of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill.

The bishops of all 111 Episcopal dioceses will meet this week at a church retreat center near Houston to consider their response to an ultimatum issued in Tanzania on Feb. 19 by the primates, or heads, of the 38 national churches that make up the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member communion, which is still reeling from the consecration of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson, in New Hampshire in 2003.

In an attempt to prevent a schism, Jefferts Schori and her fellow primates gave U.S. bishops until Sept. 30 to make an unambiguous, collective promise that they will not consent to the election of any more gay bishops and will not authorize blessings of same-sex couples. The primates also agreed to establish the post of "primatial vicar" to oversee U.S. dioceses unhappy with the Episcopal Church's recent course.

If the Episcopal Church rejects the ultimatum, it will face unspecified sanctions, such as a downgrading of its status within the Anglican Communion. But even before the U.S. bishops gather in Texas on Friday, more than a dozen of them, including Bishop John B. Chane of Washington, have indicated they are inclined to rebuff Jefferts Schori's recommendation and politely but firmly say "no" to the primates.

"We have to be very clear about where we are as a church. We have consented to the consecration of Gene Robinson, and we have -- the majority of dioceses in this country have -- allowed the blessing of same-sex couples for some time," Chane said in an interview.

"We have done these things, and the one thing we're not going to do, in my opinion, is we're not going back to Egypt," he said, referring to the biblical exodus from slavery. "These are positions that have been taken, really, at some cost to the unity of our church, but for the integrity of our church."

Liberal Episcopalians also object to the ultimatum on procedural grounds, noting that the primates' Tanzania communique was addressed solely to U.S. bishops, as though they can speak for the American church. "There isn't a bishop I know of who will say we can do that," Chane said.

Bishop Paul V. Marshall of Bethlehem, Pa., said many of the primates rule autocratically over former colonial churches and do not understand the "democratic polity" of the Episcopal Church, which broke away from the Church of England during the American Revolution.

The Episcopal constitution was written by many of the same people who drafted the U.S. Constitution, and it vests power in a legislature with two equal chambers: a House of Bishops and a House of Deputies, which contains lay people and priests, Marshall said.

Marshall predicted the American bishops will call for discussions throughout the Episcopal Church, rather than respond directly to the primates at the Texas meeting.

"Historically, the House of Bishops seeks ways around conflict. If there's a way to pass the buck, we will," he said.

Conservative Episcopalians generally have welcomed the ultimatum. They see it as a clear demand for the U.S. church to repent and return to traditional positions on sexual matters.

But the response from liberal Episcopalians has run the gamut "from sadness to anger and everything in between -- a lot of disappointment and frustration," said Meyers, a member of the House of Deputies. Above all, she added, "we're trying to understand why our presiding bishop thinks this is the right way to proceed."

Jefferts Schori declined to be interviewed for this article. But she explained her position during a Feb. 28 live webcast from New York in which she answered questions from Anglicans worldwide. Poised and unhurried, with an easy laugh, she projected calm.

"We are being pushed toward a decision by impatient forces within and outside this church who hunger for clarity," she said. " . . . If we can lower the emotional reactivity in the midst of this current controversy, we just might be able to find a way to live together."

In 2003, Jefferts Schori voted with a majority of Episcopal bishops for Robinson's consecration. She also allowed the blessing of same-sex unions in her former role as bishop of Nevada.

She has made clear that she still supports the "full inclusion" of gay men and lesbians at all levels of the church. But she is urging the Episcopal Church to accept the primates' call for self-restraint, which she has compared to "a season of fasting," so that the U.S. church can continue to be a voice at the Anglican table.

Although some conservatives have praised her for recognizing the communion's value, she has not won their trust.

"She calls for patience and says in time the entire communion will come around to embrace the new theology. She's trying to play a longer game, for a bigger prize," said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, a conservative theologian in South Carolina.

Liberal Episcopalians have questioned Jefferts Schori's recent judgment, but she has not lost their allegiance.

Bishop Chilton R. Knudsen of Maine said she is worried that the primates' ultimatum is a step toward turning the Anglican Communion into a "magisterial" church with centralized authority, something much closer to Roman Catholicism than to the loose "bonds of affection" that have tied Anglicans together.

But, she said, "I'm reserving judgment. I know Katharine well enough to have an instinctive trust in her, and I want to hear from her about this."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company