Episcopalians Elect First Female Leader in Anglican History

Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected to lead a church in the global Anglican Communion when she was picked Sunday to be the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.
( [email protected] ) Jun 19, 2006 09:40 AM EDT

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori became the first woman elected to lead a church in the global Anglican Communion when she was picked Sunday to be the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. It was another groundbreaking and controversial move for a denomination that consecrated Anglicanism's first openly gay bishop just three years ago.

Standing before cheering delegates to Episcopal General Convention, Jefferts Schori said she was "awed and honored and deeply privileged to be elected." Outgoing Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold was at her side as she was introduced after closed-door balloting.

The choice of Jefferts Schori may worsen -- and could even splinter -- the already difficult relations between the American denomination and its fellow Anglicans. Episcopalians have been sparring with many in the other 37 Anglican provinces over homosexuality, but a female leader adds a new layer of complexity to the already troubled relationship.

Only two other Anglican provinces -- New Zealand and Canada -- have female bishops, although a handful of other provinces allow women to serve in the post. Still, there are many Anglican leaders who believe women should not even be priests.

At the General Convention where Jefferts Schori was elected, delegates have been debating whether to appease Anglican leaders by agreeing to temporarily stop ordaining gay bishops.

In 2003, the Americans shocked the Anglican world by electing the first openly gay bishop -- V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Placing a female bishop at the head of the denomination could further anger conservatives worldwide and even within the U.S. church. And Jefferts Schori voted to confirm Robinson.

Andrew Carey, a British-based commentator on Anglican affairs and son of the Rev. George Carey, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, called Jefferts Schori "the most liberal of the lot" of candidates.

"I think this fully shows a noncompliance of spirit with rest of the communion," he said in a telephone interview.

Episcopal bishops elected Jefferts Schori on the fifth ballot in a 95-93 vote from a field including six other male candidates; other General Convention delegates confirmed the choice.

Gasps could be heard throughout the vast convention hall when Jefferts Schori's name was announced. The Rev. Jennifer Adams from Western Michigan, speaking from the floor, called Schori "a woman of integrity, consistency and faith. I have no doubt her election as presiding bishop will be a gift to our church."

Yet several delegates said they feared the global consequences.

"I can't help but consider the peculiar genius our church has for roiling the waters," said the Rev. Eddie Blue of Maryland. "I am shocked, dismayed and saddened by the choice."

The presiding bishop represents the Episcopal Church in meetings with other Anglican leaders and with leaders of other religious groups. But the presiding bishop's power is limited because of the democratic nature of the church. The General Convention is the top Episcopal policy-making body and dioceses elect their own bishops.

Jefferts Schori will be installed to her nine-year term at a ceremony Nov. 4 in Washington National Cathedral.

She will inherit a fractured church. The Pittsburgh-based Anglican Communion Network, which represents 10 U.S. conservative dioceses and more than 900 parishes within the Episcopal Church, is deciding whether to break from the denomination. The House of Bishops recently started a defense fund that will help fight legal battles against parishes that want to leave and take their property with them.

Membership in the Episcopal Church, as in other mainline Protestant groups, has been declining for years and has remained predominantly white. More than a quarter of the 2.3 million parishioners are age 65 or older.

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