Episcopal Church leaders chose Nevada Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as their leader Sunday, making her the first woman to head any denomination in the Anglican Communion worldwide.
The decision to choose a female presiding bishop for the 2.3 million-member denomination, 30 years after the church first allowed women to become priests, might exacerbate tensions between Episcopalians and other branches of the Anglican church. Three years ago, Episcopalians angered many conservatives in the United States and abroad by electing an openly gay man from New Hampshire, Gene Robinson, as a bishop.
Jefferts Schori, 52, a graduate of Stanford University and a former oceanographer, backed Robinson’s election. The runner-up for presiding bishop, Alabama Bishop Henry Parsley, opposed consecrating Robinson.
Before Robinson’s consecration in 2003, no openly gay priest had become a bishop in the Anglican church, which extends back more than 450 years. Only the United States, Canada and New Zealand have female bishops, although some other provinces allow women to qualify for the position. The Church of England does not allow female bishops.
With outgoing Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold by her side, Jefferts Schori told delegates to the Episcopal General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday that she was “awed and honored and deeply privileged to be elected.”
Jefferts Schori held out hope of mending any breaks that her election may cause.
“Alienation is often a function of not knowing another human being,” she said at a press conference after her election. “I have good relations with almost all the other bishops, those who agree and those who don’t agree with me. I will bend over backward to build good relations with those who don’t agree with me.”
Episcopal bishops elected Jefferts Schori on the fifth ballot. She collected 95 votes, with 93 others split between the rest of the field — six candidates, all men.
The historic vote shocked many delegates at the convention, where they also were debating whether to temporarily halt the appointment of gay bishops to make amends with other Anglican leaders.
The Rev. Jennifer Adams, who presides at Grace Episcopal Church, which is deemed “gay friendly” by the Grand Rapids, Mich., branch of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, described Jefferts Schori at the convention as “a woman of integrity, consistency and faith. I have no doubt her election as presiding bishop will be a gift to our church.”
The Rev. Ian Montgomery, minister at Palo Alto’s All Saints Episcopal Church, said he was surprised at the selection of Jefferts Schori because she had not been considered a front-runner for the position.
Montgomery said the choice of a woman is likely to be accepted in the U.S. church and within his Peninsula congregation, but he worries about the implications internationally.
“My fear is our voice will not be heard because she will not be welcomed at the table internationally,” Montgomery said. “My fear is she won’t have a place at the table because she’s a woman.”
Some church delegates, including the Rev. Eddie Blue of Maryland, questioned why Episcopalian leaders chose Jefferts Schori.
He said the issue of female bishops is “not settled” within the Anglican church. “I thought because of the other problems we were having with the rest of the communion, this would damage our relationship,” Blue said.
But Blue’s wife, Lucy Brady, a pastor in the United Church of Christ, said the move reminded her of 30 years ago when, as a divinity student in Rochester, N.Y., she heard bells ringing on campus to celebrate that the Episcopal Church’s had approved women as priests.
“This is so exciting — they’ve selected a woman!” Brady said in a phone interview from her home in Baltimore. Brady noted that her church ordained the first female pastor in the United States, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, in 1850.
Jefferts Schori said she began thinking about the ministry about 15 years ago at the urging of others in her parish in Oregon. In 1994, she received a master’s of divinity from the School of the Pacific, in Berkeley, and she was ordained as a deacon of the Good Samaritan Church in Corvallis, Ore. Seven years later, she was elected bishop of the 6,000-member Nevada diocese.
She is married with one daughter. She will be installed to her nine-year term at a ceremony Nov. 4.
As presiding bishop, Jefferts Schori will represent the church in meetings with other top Anglican officials and other leaders of faith, but she will not have as much power as some other religious figures. Dioceses elect their own bishops, and the Episcopal General Convention, which elected Jefferts Schori, sets policy for the church.
Mercury News Staff Writer Howard Mintz, the New York Times and Associated Press contributed to this report.