First woman takes helm of Episcopal Church

Times Staff Writer

The Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori was empowered to take charge of the Episcopal Church on Saturday in a Gothic sanctuary filled with well-wishers and the acrid smell of hot wax and incense, becoming the first woman to lead a national church in the Anglican Communion’s roughly 500-year history.

The investiture of Jefferts Schori, a pilot and former oceanographer, drew a standing ovation from the 3,200 people inside Washington National Cathedral, which was decorated with banners and flowers displaying the “colors of dawn” she selected as a motif: blues, greens, orange, silver and gold.

Continuing an ancient rite, before entering the cathedral the former bishop of Nevada banged three times on its weighty bronze west gates with her bishop’s staff, the sharp raps echoing off the limestone walls and stained-glass windows.


What followed was a vibrant, ethnically diverse welcoming procession led by Paiute Shoshone drummers, choral groups singing in Spanish and Nigerian, bishops in red cassocks walking two by two, and dancers waving streamers of purple and magenta.

Her selection as the 26th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the denomination’s highest office, was hailed as a breakthrough for women and for the inclusion of gays and lesbians, which she supports. It also made her a target in an international battle of opposing views on sexuality and interpretation of Scripture that have pushed the worldwide 77-million-member Communion toward schism.

The fireworks began in September, when traditional clergymen meeting in Rwanda proposed that Jefferts Schori be sidelined at the next Anglican primates’ meeting set for February in Tanzania, or accompanied by a U.S. bishop opposed to gay ordination and same-sex marriage.

At least four conservative U.S. dioceses, including one in Central California, have rejected her authority and asked Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, the Anglican spiritual leader, to place them under the jurisdiction of another leader.

In an interview this week, Jefferts Schori, 52, pointed out that her denomination had always been among the most progressive of mainstream churches.

“I’m going to Tanzania. I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” she said. “The reality is that only a handful of bishops are unhappy. Africa is not monolithic or monochromatic in the same way the church here is not; they are not all of one mind.”

Indeed, the archbishop of Cape Town and the bishop of the Anglican Church of Tanzania were among the church officials and dignitaries who joined lay people from around the world to watch the two-hour religious pageant unfold on a cold, bright autumn morning.

The congregation cheered when her predecessor, the Rt. Rev. Frank T. Griswold III, handed Jefferts Schori the primatial staff symbolizing her nine-year term as shepherd of the 2.4-million-member flock.

Other attendees included former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, as well as the people closest to the bishop: her husband, Richard Miles Schori, a retired theoretical mathematician, and her daughter, Katharine Johanna, 25, a first lieutenant and pilot in the U.S. Air Force.

Wearing a miter and multi-colored stole, Jefferts Schori delivered a 10-minute sermon that did not mention gays or the role of women specifically but called on Anglicans to overcome the divisions keeping them and the church from achieving a sense of wholeness and well-being, an absence of discord embodied by the Hebrew word “shalom.”

“If some in this church feel wounded by recent decisions, then our salvation, our health as a body, is at some hazard, and it becomes the duty of all of us to seek healing and wholeness,” she said. “As long as children live exposed on the streets, while seniors go without food to pay for life-sustaining drugs, wherever people are sickened by industrial waste, the body suffers, and none of us can say we have finally come home.”

Jefferts Schori’s installation will conclude today, when she is formally seated in the presiding bishop’s cathedra, an ornately carved high-backed chair.

Born in Pensacola, Fla., and raised in Seattle, Jefferts Schori was always curious and a risk-taker. At age 6, she built a crystal radio and learned to work in a darkroom. Over the years she learned Spanish, took bugle and harp lessons, and began scuba diving, rock climbing and flying. She worked as an oceanographer with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In 1994, Jefferts Schori was ordained as a priest who, as she put it, “never believed that science and religion are mutually exclusive.”

“Oceanography taught me to look at large systems and what makes them tick,” she said. “To study any part of the ocean, for example, you have to take into account the atmosphere, physics, chemistry and biology. Human communities are not different; adaptation to change and diversity make them healthy.”

Next week, she will move into the Episcopal Church’s Manhattan headquarters. Chief among her concerns: reconciling differences with Anglicans who believe the U.S. has drifted toward what they consider heresy.

David Anderson, chief executive and president of the orthodox American Anglican Council, which has 300 affiliated churches in the U.S., in a phone interview decried her installation as “further evidence that there is not much hope for the Episcopal Church, or that we can turn it around.”

Then there was Mary Stahl, a diminutive senior citizen from Delray Beach, Fla., who, after the ceremony, joined a line of thousands of people wanting to give their new presiding bishop a hug, or receive her blessing.

Stahl wanted to deliver an urgent message.

“I told her that holding my church together as an upstanding institution is very important,” Stahl said afterward. “I also told her I’m a scuba diver too, and she liked that. Then we hugged, and I almost burst into tears.”