I have spent a lot of time since General Convention this summer thinking about the impact of our election of Katherine Jefferts Schori as our new Presiding Bishop. For a long time, I was simply trying to get over the shock (It was a pleasant shock, but a deep one). Before convention, a common thing you heard (and something I helped perpetuate, I must confess) was “She’s probably the most qualified candidate, but she’ll never get elected at this time in our church’s life.” Her overwhelming election by the House of Bishops set our House of Deputies into an uproar. The thing that struck me the most was the emotional reaction from many of the female deputies. One friend of mine began crying after she heard the news. She told me later that she was surprised at her own reaction. The elevation of a woman to our highest executive position touched on some lingering feeling that the church still considered her ordained ministry of less validity than mine simply because of her gender. Jefferts Schori’s election was a powerful symbol that in the Episcopal Church we take seriously Paul’s admonition that in Christ there is no spiritual distinction between male or female. As Episcopalian Robin Williams says in his Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian, “Male and female, God created them; male and female, we ordain them.”
The effect of her election on the convention in retrospect was tremendous. Many of us were disheartened when a major piece of legislation (A133) that had been painstakingly designed by a bipartisan committee to respond to the Windsor Report failed in the House of Deputies. A different resolution, B033, was drafted and passed by the House of Bishops, but would not have passed our house if it had not been for Jefferts Schori’s personal plea that we pass it. There are those that claim that her act was interference in a legislative process. I see it as a bishop taking a leadership role and doing something for the good of the church at great personal cost. It is interesting to reflect that had someone else been elected Presiding Bishop, they probably would not have had the clout with the “moderate left” to get B033 passed. As one female deputy said on the floor, “This resolution tears at everything I hold dear, but I will vote for it for her.”
The reaction of the Anglican Communion to our election of a woman as Presiding Bishop is interesting. It’s no secret that many of the Anglican provinces are not fond of the idea of women as bishops (or priests or deacons for that matter.) Even a few of our own dioceses continue to exercise a local option not to ordain women. Although only three Anglican provinces have consecrated women as bishops, fourteen out of thirty-eight have provisions that would allow for such a consecration. Commission reports and resolutions of the Lambeth conference make it clear that the consensus is that this is a difference that we can live with. So gender is not a place where it would bear fruit to criticize her. Instead, some are attacking her “liberal” views, although she certainly does not appear to be any more radical than her predecessors. Indeed, her action of supporting B033 tends to indicate that she is willing to subsume personal beliefs and preferences in order to foster relationship and communication between diverse parties.
But is this all really a male power trip? Every time I read an article about women in the Anglican Communion, I am shocked out of my thinking about bishops, power structures and who’s in and out. Time and time again, the voices of the women of the Anglican Communion have insisted that there are more important issues facing us than issues of sexuality and ecclesial power. People are dying from hunger and preventable disease. Infant mortality is on the rise. Children are being drafted as soldiers. Finding sources of clean water is an increasing problem in parts of the world. Anglican women consistently maintain that while they might have differences around issues of sexuality, these basic issues of human dignity and economic justice trump all of the bluster and saber-rattling that the bishops are doing.
What will it be like to inject a woman into the “Old Boy’s Club” of the primates meeting? I can only speculate, but the hope that I have read from Anglican women around the world is that she may be able to change the entire debate to one focused on how we build the Kingdom of God rather than how we organize ourselves. It could be that a “Woman’s Touch” is exactly what we need at this point in our history to bring us back to reality.