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Episcopal leader hopes to mend rift

Times Staff Writer

Anxiety crept into the priest’s voice as he addressed the leader of his unsettled church.

Was she finding a way to bridge the widening rifts in the Episcopal Church and its parent Anglican Communion? he asked. Or was it an impasse?

Standing recently in the airy sanctuary of a small San Jose church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori was direct, her low voice calm, as she offered her own, more nuanced view to the priests and lay leaders before her.

“I’m not sure it is a stalemate,” she said. “I think this church and others may just be becoming clearer about who they are.”

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And she reminded her audience that small groups of believers had previously left both the Episcopal Church and the global Anglican fellowship, and both entities survived.

Perhaps, Jefferts Schori said, if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could “hold their truths more lightly,” they might yet find a way forward -- together.

“I believe we only know the fullness of God’s truth at the end of time,” she said. “And in the meantime, we have to be careful about being so sure that we understand it all.”

The first woman to be elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Jefferts Schori, 53, is leading her flock at a pivotal, and for many in the church, profoundly uneasy, time.

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The influential, liberal-leaning church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, is facing the possibility of a break with the worldwide Anglican Communion, the result of long-standing tensions over homosexuality and scriptural interpretation that crystallized with the American church’s decision in 2003 to consecrate an openly gay bishop.

Now parishes and dioceses within the Episcopal church also are threatening to go their own way. Four congregations have voted to pull out of the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Next month, the Fresno-based San Joaquin Diocese could become the first in the country to take a final vote to sever its ties with the national church. At the center of the storm is Jefferts Schori, a Stanford University-trained former oceanographer and licensed pilot who became an Episcopal priest in 1994, when she was 40. Her election in June 2006 as the 26th presiding bishop of the 2.4-million-member church was hailed as a breakthrough, both for women and for full inclusion for gays and lesbians, which she supports.

In her first year, Jefferts Schori, a tall, slender woman with a thoughtful manner and resonant voice, has won praise from many for her efforts to hold the fractious Episcopal Church together and keep it -- at least so far -- within the 77-million-member Anglican Communion.

In October, leaders of Anglicans overseas responded largely positively to pledges from the Episcopal Church to “exercise restraint” in consecrating more gay bishops and to refrain from authorizing official blessings for same-sex couples. A response from the communion’s top leaders, or primates, is expected soon.

On her recent visit to Northern California, Jefferts Schori repeatedly urged Episcopalians to look beyond the issues that divide them and focus on what she said should be the church’s main mission, ministering to people in need. She also asked them to reach out to one another and be patient as the church passes through an arduous time.

In Saratoga, wearing the sunrise-hued vestments of her own investiture, she helped celebrate the consecration of California’s first female Episcopal bishop, Mary Gray-Reeves, as head of the Diocese of El Camino Real, which stretches from Palo Alto to San Luis Obispo. And in San Jose, she held a relaxed question-and-answer session with diocesan leaders.

“She’s clear-thinking, decisive and unafraid, absolutely unafraid,” said the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the Episcopal Church’s executive council. “She is really the kind of person we need right now.”

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But some of Jefferts Schori’s efforts, in particular her decisions to get tough with parishes and dioceses that are trying to leave the Episcopal Church -- and trying to take church buildings and other property with them -- have drawn criticism.

In a Nov. 12 letter, for instance, the Rt. Rev. Jack Iker, the conservative bishop of the Fort Worth Diocese in Texas, accused the presiding bishop of misusing her office and engaging in “aggressive, dictatorial posturing.” Jefferts Schori had warned Iker in a letter earlier this month that he could face church discipline if he continued to back proposals that would lead his diocese away from the national church.

Nonetheless, on Saturday, representatives from Fort Worth approved constitutional amendments that are the first steps toward that departure. The diocese joined others in San Joaquin and Pittsburgh in granting the preliminary approval.

“She’s playing hardball, and that’s not going down very well, in this country or in the communion,” said the Rev. Canon Kendall Harmon, a leading church traditionalist from South Carolina who runs a popular Episcopal blog. “She’s apparently opted for a power strategy and a public legal strategy, and that’s a great disappointment.”

But Jefferts Schori explains her strategy in different terms.

In her Nov. 9 meeting with about 100 leaders of the El Camino Real Diocese, she said she believed strongly in reaching out and listening to Episcopalians frustrated by what they see as the church’s too-liberal direction.

“I think there are many in our church who feel beleaguered, and often they don’t hear from other parts of the church that they, too, are beloved,” the bishop said during the conversation with diocesan leaders in the sanctuary of St. Stephen’s in the Field Church. “If we can ratchet it down a little, we may find a way to live together even if we don’t agree.”

Moving easily up and down the church’s center aisle as she spoke, Jefferts Schori said she understood that individual Episcopalians might choose to leave the church, as others have before them. “I think we have to honor the idea that faithfulness may lead us in different directions,” she said.

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But she also made clear that if bishops tried to steer their dioceses out of the national church, or if parishes tried to keep Episcopal Church property, they would face discipline or legal action, or both. Already, in Southern California and elsewhere, the church and breakaway parishes are embroiled in numerous court disputes over property.

A priest asked Jefferts Schori for advice: How, she asked, could she reconcile the religious traditionalists and gay religious groups and supporters within her own congregation?

Jefferts Schori nodded, with evident empathy. “I think the more we can all get invested in the needs of our neighbors, the less we need to focus on our own need to be right,” she responded. “Jesus didn’t say, ‘Sit there and throw words at each other.’ . . . He said, ‘Get out there and heal the sick and help the poor.’ ”

Later, several in the group praised Jefferts Schori’s openness and manner.

“She speaks from a very deep place,” said Valerie Valle, a priest from Arroyo Grande near San Luis Obispo. “She listens to everything that’s said, then goes deep.”

After the meeting, Jefferts Schori said that although the San Joaquin Diocese borders that of El Camino Real, she had had little recent contact with its bishop, John-David Schofield, and could not visit without his invitation. The diocese is scheduled to vote in its Dec. 8-9 convention on whether to break away from the national church and announced Friday that it had been invited to align itself with the Anglican province of the Southern Cone of South America, and its conservative primate, Presiding Bishop Gregory James Venables.

Speaking before that announcement, Jefferts Schori said she planned to send a second letter of warning to Schofield before the convention and still hoped to change his mind. And she described as “profoundly unhelpful” those primates making such incursions into Episcopal Church territory.

“It’s removed the necessity for people in the church to deal with their complaints within the church,” she said. “It’s not unlike in a troubled marriage, if one spouse goes off to find aid and comfort in another relationship. It makes reconciling almost impossible.”

Reconciliation can come only through engagement, Jefferts Schori said, adding that it pained her that some on both ends of the theological spectrum seemed no longer able, or willing, to discuss their differences. And this in an American church with a long history of tolerance for diversity of all sorts.

“I think the center of the church has heard the message,” she said. “But it’s more of a struggle for people on the edge of the progressive part and the edge of the more conservative part. Both believe in utter faithfulness that they’re right . . . and there’s less patience that God will work all things out in the end.”

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori

Born: March 26, 1954, in Pensacola, Fla.

Education: Bachelor of science in biology, Stanford University, 1974; master’s degree, 1977, and doctorate, 1983, both in oceanography, from Oregon State University. Master’s in divinity, 1994, Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

Ordained: Nov. 30, 1994.

Elected bishop: Diocese of Nevada in 2000. Elected 26th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, June 18, 2006. Invested Nov. 4, 2006, at National Cathedral.

Family: Husband Richard Miles Schori, a retired theoretical mathematician. One daughter, Katharine Johanna, a 1st lieutenant and pilot in the Air Force.

Source: The Episcopal Church


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