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Survey Statistics Called ‘Amazing’ : Episcopalians Now ‘Open’ to Woman Bishop

Times Religion Writer

The Episcopal Church, torn by controversy before it decided to ordain women priests a decade ago, is quietly indicating now that it would be happy to place the bishop’s miter on a woman as well.

Fewer than 30% of 10,000 Episcopalians surveyed in Southern California said they would object to a woman being elected this fall as bishop of the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese, according to results released by the church Wednesday.

The study found that 56% said they are “open” to a woman for the post left vacant by the death in 1986 of Bishop Robert Rusack.

Only 28% said they were not open to a woman bishop and 16% had no opinion--statistics called “amazing” by a prominent Episcopal rector, the Rev. George Regas of Pasadena, who said it indicated how well women Episcopal priests have been accepted over the last decade.

If a woman was nominated and elected bishop, she would be the first within the worldwide, 65-million-member Anglican Communion, to which the 2.7-million-member Episcopal Church belongs. The action undoubtedly would disturb traditionalist elements of the Church of England and other national Anglican churches that do not admit women to the priesthood.

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Anglican bishops last year asked their American counterparts to delay any ordination of a woman bishop until the issues can be discussed at next year’s Lambeth Conference, a once-a-decade gathering of Anglican churches.

Episcopal bishops last September agreed to delay any consecration of a woman bishop until after the summer 1988 Lambeth Conference in London, but they said they would not invalidate any diocesan election of a woman bishop, if it occurred. Indeed, the 1985 General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Anaheim declared that it would not withhold consent to any bishop’s election on the basis of gender.

The 1976 Episcopal General Convention approved the ordination of women priests, prompting some traditionalist clergy and churches to leave the denomination.

The Los Angeles diocese survey sought parishioner opinions in 147 churches in Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Qualities sought in a bishop were among a broad range of questions.

But the openness expressed toward the possibility of a woman bishop was “surprising,” said Ruth Nicastro, diocesan communications director. Nicastro said she “wouldn’t hazard a guess” on whether a woman has a chance to be elected, however.

“If she were a strong person, highly qualified, highly skilled and with a rich base of experience, I believe she would be seriously considered,” said Regas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. “On the other hand, women priests still have a hard time being elected.”

Three women have been nominated for a bishop’s post in U.S. dioceses, but all have lost. The most recent candidate was the Rev. Chotard Doll, who was one of the nominees last spring for a suffragan, or assistant, bishop’s post in the Washington, D.C., diocese. The Rev. Colman McGehee, 63, Episcopal bishop of Detroit, said last week he hopes that a woman will be his successor, but he was not definite on when he will retire.

In addition to the Episcopal Church, Anglican churches in Canada, New Zealand, Brazil, Uganda and Hong Kong ordain women to the priesthood. The 450-year-old Church of England voted this February to begin a long study and consultation process toward ordination of women priests, despite deep-seated objections. Traditionalists have threatened to defect to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, whose hierarchies are adamantly opposed to women’s ordination.

Beside the specter of schism is the concern that the longtime Anglican effort to achieve unity with the Roman Catholic Church may collapse. Historic disputes over priestly celibacy and papal infallibility are thought to be surmountable in time, but the Vatican has said plainly that ordaining women priests would present a major new obstacle to meaningful discussions.

The Episcopal diocese in Los Angeles, where Suffragan Bishop Oliver Garver is serving as interim bishop, has not set a time for an election convention other than sometime in the fall. Nor has the Diocesan Study Committee, which received the survey results, started taking names for consideration, Nicastro said.

Eventually, a nominating committee will consider candidates, not limited to those living in the Los Angeles diocese, and present several nominees to the convention.

Nicastro said that well over half of the survey respondents were women and 83% were Anglo, 6% black, 4% Asian, 3% Latino and 4% “other.” Only 29% thought a new bishop should be bilingual, but half thought suffragan bishops should reflect ethnic diversity in the diocese.


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