Battling over bishops


A GENERAL CONVENTION of the Episcopal Church that was supposed to be dominated by a debate over gay bishops has produced headlines about another sort of untraditional church leader: the first woman elected as presiding bishop. But reaction to the story demonstrates how entangled the two controversies are.

Until the election Sunday of the Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori as presiding bishop, the highlight of the convention was expected to be a vote on whether the U.S. church should declare a moratorium on ordaining additional gay bishops. With support from Jefferts Schori, the convention Wednesday approved a last-minute compromise resolution calling on Episcopal dioceses not to agree to the ordination of bishops “whose manner of life presents a challenge to the wider church.”

But even if that resolution calms the waters of controversy (which seems unlikely), Jefferts Schori’s election has roiled them. Conservatives were upset not only because she supported the ordination of an openly gay bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, but also because of the feared reaction to her election from churches that do not accept women as bishops.


In the religious as in the secular world, opponents of women’s rights and opponents of gay rights are often the same people. In many ways the ecclesiastical earthquake of three years ago is a replay of the controversy that followed the Episcopal Church’s decision a generation ago to ordain women as priests.

Then as now, conservative Episcopalians said that a more inclusive ministry was scripturally unsound. What both controversies have in common is not only a fixation on sex and gender but also the challenge of deciding what religious practices can and should change with the times. How literally should Christians take language in Scripture forbidding a woman to “to usurp authority over the man,” or declaring that it’s an abomination for a man to “lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman,” or saying that a church leader should be “the husband of one wife”? Are such proscriptions spiritual wheat or cultural chaff; an accurate echo of the divine voice or a reflection of merely human customs that can evolve?

Individual believers will respond differently to those questions. Yet the election of a female presiding bishop for the Episcopal Church is a reminder that many, though not all, members of that faith have accommodated themselves to what was once seen as a heretical idea, without compromising what they see as the essentials of their faith. That experience can only give heart to advocates of other kinds of inclusiveness in the church’s ordained ministry.