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Reflecting on outgoing Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s tenure as Episcopal Church brings in new leader

Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was the first woman elected to lead a national branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. (The Episcopal Church via RNS)
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This opinion piece is by Diana Butler Bass, an independent scholar and expert on U.S. religion. She is the author of eight books, including “Christianity After Religion.”

In 2006, the Episcopal Church elected Katharine Jefferts Schori to serve a nine-year term as the denomination’s presiding bishop, the head of the church, an ecclesiastical position equivalent to the Church of England’s archbishop of Canterbury. The election was historic – she was the first woman elevated to the position, and the only woman among the senior bishops of the global Anglican Communion.

And now her term is coming to an end. On Saturday, the Episcopal Church elected a new presiding bishop, Michael Curry of North Carolina. Curry will be the first African American to lead the church, one of the oldest and most historic Christian bodies in the United States.

Nine years ago, not only was Jefferts Schori’s election historic, but it also followed another significant denominational event. In 2003, three years earlier, the Episcopal Church had elected Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest, to serve as the Bishop of New Hampshire, the first openly gay person to hold such an office.

After Robinson’s election, there were accusations of heresy and immorality, along with smear campaigns and death threats. The media reported that the denomination might split in half, suggesting a significant schism was in the making. By 2006, conflict roiled across the denomination as members left, congregations tried to take their property from the church, entire dioceses attempted to secede, and some sought to exclude American Episcopalians from worldwide Anglicanism.

At the 2006 national gathering, many thought that a moderate bishop would be chosen as the new presiding bishop to placate conservatives. When Jefferts Schori was elected, the only female nominee and one of the most theologically liberal of the candidates, it was a surprise to many – and a shock to some.

In three years, with the election of a gay man as a bishop and a woman as presiding bishop, the usually restrained and often overly judicious Episcopal Church placed itself in the theological crosshairs of two of the most significant social issues of the day: women’s leadership and LGBTQ rights.

In the 21st century, with declining numbers who identify as part of mainline religion, church elections are mostly a matter of inside baseball and of no great consequence to American society. Yet this cannot be fairly said of Jefferts Schori’s tenure as the head of the Episcopal Church. In the last decade, the denomination became a sort of a laboratory in which to observe cultural and religious change.

The first and most obvious fact about Jefferts Schori’s tenure is that she is a she. As the only female head of an Anglican national church, she was subjected to innumerable indignities, the most noteworthy of which was a 2010 order by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that she not wear a mitre (the hat worn by Christian bishops to symbolize their spiritual authority) when preaching in an English cathedral.

Throughout the last nine years, some made it clear that although she might bear the title of presiding bishop, she was not really a bishop and worked to undermine her authority at every turn.

She comported herself with a sort of dispassionate reserve that only seemed to anger her critics more. Even if others rejected her authority, she exercised it anyway – especially by legally challenging splinter groups and property cases across the church.

Jefferts Schori proved a tough leader, determined to protect the church, employing her resources to quell dissent and maintain church law. As a result, the Episcopal Church lost far fewer members than had been predicted and won almost every court case brought against it. Denominational conservatives hated her. Even some liberals, however, accused her administration of being overly authoritarian.

A few suggested she was the “Maggie Thatcher” of the Episcopal Church, although a comparison to Hillary Clinton might be nearer the mark. Jefferts Schori’s leadership rescued the church from institutional demise – an accomplishment for anyone, much more so a woman leader constantly facing down discrimination.

Jefferts Schori’s tenure also points to the complex and intertwined realities of women’s and LGBTQ rights. Her opponents exercised the same tactics of discrimination against both her and Gene Robinson. Each was (often grudgingly) recognized as a bishop, but faced constant challenges to their leadership on the basis of gender or sexual identity. They were excluded from meetings whenever possible, sometimes forced to sit separate from groups, forbidden to wear symbols of their rank in certain places, and disallowed from performing the sacraments – practices of segregation resembling those often employed against African Americans – and functionally intimating that Jefferts Schori and Robinson were somehow unclean or spiritually unacceptable.

Such overt discrimination demonstrates that while sexism, homophobia and racism are not identical, they prompt the same response from those who fear losing power or privilege, including within the religious community. In a comment that applies to too many American organizations, Bishop Susan Goff of Virginia said the Episcopal Church continues to suffer from “deeply ingrained structural and institutional sexism.”

Having a woman presiding bishop does not eliminate sexism – and electing a bishop who happens to be gay does not end homophobia. The Gordian knot of equal rights for all has to be untied as a whole, not as its individual threads.

Curry’s election Saturday that will certainly challenge the church to deal with more directly with race.  My prediction? The Episcopal Church will be interesting to watch for another nine years, intent as it seems on being a testing ground for the full expression of human rights in Christian community and American society.