Bishop will face 'difficult' mission

As Episcopalians struggle with deep divisions, the denomination's first presiding female bishop takes the reins. Some cheer, but others are worried.

Published June 20, 2006

The Episcopal Church's first presiding female bishop hopes to build bridges to local and worldwide clerics but will have a "difficult" time assuming the role of conciliator, the head of the Diocese of Southwest Florida said Monday.

Bishop John B. Lipscomb, in a letter to the 33,000-member diocese that spans from Brooksville to Marco Island, said Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori "enters her new role in a General Convention where the divisions within the Episcopal church and Anglican Communion continue to deepen."

"Many of the provinces of the Communion are still uncertain about the ministry of women in Holy Orders, especially the episcopate," Lipscomb wrote.

As word of Jefferts Schori's election spread Monday, local Episcopalians were fraught with emotion.

Many in the bay area cheered Jefferts Schori's selection as historic. Others, including many local clerics, wondered what her tenure would mean for the struggling Episcopal Church.

Lipscomb wrote that many Episcopalians, including some parishioners in his diocese, will have problems with Jefferts Schori's stance on gay ordination. Still, he asked the diocese to join him in extending "congratulations to her and in prayer for her and her family."

Lipscomb - who is attending the nine-day convention in Columbus, Ohio, with an eight-member delegation - did not say how he voted. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Jefferts Schori, 52, takes the helm of the 2.3-million member Episcopal Church at a time when its membership has been in a multiyear slide and division on several controversies threatens to further splinter the group. As the Episcopal Church's new leader, Jefferts Schori, the bishop of Nevada, must face the 77-million worldwide Anglican Communion, which largely rejects the ordination of female priests.

Jefferts Schori, a Pensacola native, also finds herself embroiled in one of the Episcopal Church's most fractious debates, the ordination of gays. In 2003, she voted in support of the denomination's first openly gay bishop.

Some scholars said Jefferts Schori's election negates previous reconciliation efforts with the conservative Anglican Communion.

"Electing a woman might not have been so problematic were it not for the fact that this is part of a pattern of really disregarding what is going on in the rest of the Anglican Communion," said David Hein, who chairs the religion and philosophy department at Hood College in Frederick, Md., and author of The Episcopalians. "As a lifelong Episcopal, the son and brother of Episcopal priests and a historian of the Episcopal Church, I find it absolutely distressing."

From his perch at St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral in St. Petersburg, the Very Rev. Dr. Russell Johnson cheered the bishops' vote.

"We are the only denomination that's embraced the rugged, grounded Christianity in that respect," he said. "Everybody else is a little too timid in the wideness of God's love to trust that women or minorities or whatever can rise to the top of a church's hierarchy."

Like Johnson, the Rev. Shanda Mahurin celebrates the election.

"Being a woman priest, it's exciting to have that historic thing happen in my church," said Mahurin, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Spring Hill. "She'll be in everyone's prayers. She has a difficult job, very difficult."

Rev. Stephen Ankudowich, rector of St. Anne of Grace Episcopal Church in Seminole, said the historic first for women would ultimately be overshadowed by whether Jefferts Schori is able to unify the church.

Already, some priests question her qualifications. She became a bishop in 1994 after a career as an oceanographer.

"She's had very limited experience," said the Rev. William McLean, interim rector at St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Snell Isle. "But if you believe in the Holy Spirit taking charge of these things, then you can't contest it. The church has spoken."

The Rev. Ed Henley, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Tampa and chairman of the diocese's convention delegation, called a deputation, supports Jefferts Schori.

"She is going to prove herself very well," he said. "It's going to be necessary that people give her some time to show her capacity to speak to all."

Still, many Episcopalians remained cautiously optimistic about the election's broader effect on the church.

"I personally feel that these are moves that have to be made," said Wendy Maddox, a member of St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg. "Whether they have been made too early, I just don't know. Only time will tell."

Sherri Day can be reached at 813-226-3405 or sday@sptimes.com.