Originally published in The Advocate, June 20, 2006.
The U.S. Episcopal Church may have broken its glass ceiling by electing a woman leader, but what does that mean for the future of the church and its continuing struggle with gay rights
Gasps of both exhilaration and exasperation reverberated throughout the hall at the General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, when the American Anglican community heard on Father’s Day that the ecclesiastical stained-glass ceiling had been broken with the election of Nevada bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first female to preside over the Episcopal Church in the USA.
Although the General Convention had previously voted to admit women to the priesthood in 1974, and to the episcopate in 1989, shock waves are still being felt throughout the convention hall, by both progressives and conservatives, out of fear of potential global consequences from countries that have gender-specific expectations for the job of bishop.
“I will pray for the Church and the persecutions that take place in the name of theological correctness,” Daniel T. Palmer told Witness Magazine, a progressive online journal of the Episcopal Church.
In the name of “theological correctness,” many conservatives here at home, as well, feel that Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election is adding salt to an already festering wound the church created with the 2003 consecration of the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the church’s first openly gay bishop.
Their jitters are exacerbated by the fact that Jefferts Schori not only supported Robinson’s elevation to bishop but permits the holy blessings of same-sex unions in her Episcopal Diocese of Nevada.
When a reporter from the Episcopal News Service asked Jefferts Schori how the “average Anglican who is a black woman under 30, earns $2 a day, and is evangelical” might react to news of her consecration as well as her consent to Robinson’s ascension, Jefferts Schori stated: “If the average Anglican is as you describe, she is dealing with hunger, inadequate housing, unclean water, and unavailability of education. Those are the places I would start. The issue of sexuality comes along much [lower] on the hierarchy of needs.”
While it is believed that Jefferts Schori’s gender will become a nonissue over time, as the Episcopal Church settles in with its new bishop, her liberal theological stance on homosexuality may dog, if not diminish, her authority to reach the worldwide Anglican Communion of 77 million members.
“I believe that God welcomes all to his table, people who agree and people who disagree, and the Episcopal Church has always had a strong voice for including a variety of theologies, a variety of opinions, and insisting that all the marginalized are most especially welcomed at the table,” Jefferts Schori told ENS.
With her unwavering stance on homosexuality, Jefferts Schori’s gender is now being pitted against Robinson’s sexuality. To lessen the shock waves of the church now having elected a female bishop, conservatives are lobbying fiercely with Convention delegates to halt both the ordaining of openly queer bishops and the blessing of same-sex unions.
Helping conservatives flex their muscle on the issue is the “Windsor Report,” issued in England in 2004 by an international commission advising the Episcopal Church USA to place a moratorium on ordaining openly gay bishops. The report also advised the American church to repent and apologize for consecrating Robinson against the will of the worldwide Anglican community.
Since Robinson’s consecration, both conservatives and progressive have asked him why he wants to be a bishop in a church that doesn’t seem to want him. In his sermon at the General Convention, Robinson answered that question.
Robinson asked rhetorically, “How do you do what you do? How do you seem calm and loving, even when insults are coming your way, even when Holy Scripture is being flung in your face like mud?” Quoting extensively from John Fortunato’s 1982 book Embracing the Exile, Robinson depicts the gay Episcopalian author’s vision he’d had of God. Talking with him about loving his persecutors despite our enemies’ ridicule, scorn, and even torment, God tells Fortunato to “love them anyway.” The vision ends with God enveloping Fortunato in “two strong, motherly arms. … We wept. For joy.”
For me, the joy in this moment in the history of the Episcopal Church is that it crawls toward inclusiveness, albeit haltingly and in spite of opposition.
With the 1989 consecration of Barbara Harris, an African-American and the first female bishop in the Episcopal Church, the November 2003 consecration of Bishop Robinson as the first openly gay bishop in the church, and now the 2006 election of Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, the church is opening its doors to those of us on the margins.
And for those of us on the margins in our churches and faith communities, Harris, Robinson, and Jefferts Schori show us the wonder of growth. They give us the gift of inclusion and inspire in us the work toward transformation. They show us that the glass of change is half full rather than half empty. And from this perspective, we can see the principle of love in action.