The Episcopal Church chose Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as its leader yesterday, making her the first woman to head any denomination in the Anglican Communion worldwide.
The decision by delegates to the Episcopal General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, to choose a female presiding bishop for the 2.3 million-member denomination, 30 years after the church first allowed women to become priests, may exacerbate tensions between Episcopalians and other branches of the Anglican church. Three years ago, Episcopalians angered many conservatives in the United States and abroad by electing an openly gay man from New Hampshire, V. Gene Robinson, as a bishop.
Jefferts Schori, 52, a former oceanographer, backed Robinson's election. The runner-up in the race for presiding bishop, Alabama Bishop Henry Parsley, opposed consecrating Robinson.
Before Robinson's consecration in 2003, no openly gay priest had become a bishop in the Anglican church's history, which extends back more than 450 years. Only the United States, Canada and New Zealand have female bishops, although some other provinces allow women to qualify for the position. The Church of England does not allow female bishops.
With outgoing Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold by her side, Jefferts Schori told the delegates yesterday that she was "awed and honored and deeply privileged to be elected." She was chosen on the fifth ballot, getting 95 votes to 93 for six male candidates.
The historic vote shocked many delegates who had gathered at the convention, where they were also debating whether to temporarily halt the appointment of gay bishops to make amends with other Anglican leaders. Gasps escaped from some members when Jefferts Schori's name was announced, according to the Associated Press.
The Rev. Jennifer Adams, who presides at Grace Episcopal Church, which is deemed "gay friendly" by the Grand Rapids, Mich., branch of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, described Jefferts Schori at the convention as "a woman of integrity, consistency and faith. I have no doubt her election as presiding bishop will be a gift to our church."
Feminists hailed the selection of Jefferts Schori, who holds degrees in divinity as well as in oceanography and biology, as an important step toward achieving gender equality.
"Justice comes along slowly, but it eventually comes along," said Gloria Feldt, an author and women's rights leader, in an interview yesterday.
Integrity USA, a group representing gay Episcopalians, also lauded the church's decision.
"We look forward to continuing the process of working closely with the presiding bishop toward the full inclusion of the gay and lesbian faithful in the Body of Christ," said the Rev. Susan Russell, who heads the organization. Russell added that the vote "is something for us and the whole church to celebrate."
But some church delegates, including the Rev. Eddie Blue of Maryland, questioned why Episcopal leaders chose Jefferts Schori.
He said the issue of female bishops is "not settled" within the Anglican church. "I thought because of the other problems we were having with the rest of the Communion, this would damage our relationship," Blue said in an interview.
But Blue's wife, Lucy Brady, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, said the move reminded her of the moment 30 years ago when, as a divinity student in Rochester, N.Y., she heard bells ringing on campus to celebrate that the Episcopal Church had approved women as priests.
"This is so exciting they've selected a woman!" Brady exclaimed in a phone interview from her home in Baltimore. Brady noted that her church ordained the first female pastor in the United States, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, in 1850.
Jefferts Schori will be installed at a ceremony in Washington National Cathedral on Nov. 4. As presiding bishop, she will represent the church in meetings with other top Anglican officials and other leaders of faith, but she will not have as much power as some other religious figures. Dioceses elect their own bishops under church rules, and the Episcopal General Convention, which elected Jefferts Schori, sets policy for the church.
The new Episcopal leader will face several challenges in her new post. The delegates in Columbus are still debating how to address concerns raised by a report commissioned by the archbishop of Canterbury that says the Episcopal Church must apologize for the Robinson consecration, agree not to consecrate any more gay bishops and officially oppose approving same-sex unions.
Meanwhile, a group called the Anglican Communion Network, which represents 10 U.S. conservative dioceses and more than 900 Episcopal parishes, is mulling whether to break from the Episcopal Church.