Will a New Female Leader Trigger an Episcopal Divorce?

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The surprise election Sunday of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada to Presiding Bishop of the Episcopalian Church USA can be seen from many different angles, but none of them bodes particularly well for its continued relationship with its global extended family, the 77 million member Anglican Communion.

Schori's election, at the U.S. Church's General Convention in Columbus, Ohio, can be regarded as a triumph on the anniversary of a triumph — or the organic outcome of a historic act of inclusion. Thirty years ago at another Episcopal Convention, the U.S. introduced the ordination of female priests. Schori's election to an office that puts her on a par with the Communion's 37 other national primates (including, technically, the Archbishop of Canterbury) conclusively shatters what was once an Episcopal "stained glass ceiling." Of course, many of those other 37 primates refuse to make female bishops in their own countries — indeed, the Church of England is currently engaged in a heated debate on the topic.

It is possible, if you're an optimist, to regard the election as part of a developing Episcopal finesse of the question of gay ordinations. Schori voted for the Election of V. Gene Robertson, an active gay man, as a bishop three years ago, although she did not attend his consecration. Electing her may be enough of a statement in support of that controversial move that the convening Episcopalians may find it easier to adopt more conciliatory language in response to a Communion demand that the U.S. church "repent" Robinson's election. Schori is not known as a firebrand, and has told reporters, "I will bend over backward to build relationships with people who disagree with me."

But more excitable conservative commentators, especially in England, have already claimed that the combination of her gender and her gender politics will both prompt the global family to dissolve communion with the Episcopalians and trigger the mass walkout that American conservatives have been threatening for years. (In fact, there are three dioceses of the U.S. church that even now refuse to accept the idea of a female bishop.) Early in the convention a rumor had swept the meeting that Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola was in Columbus, Ohio, waiting to usher dissenters out of the U.S. church and under the wing of conservative global primates like himself.

Both the U.S. Church and the Anglican Communion have a reputation for cooking "Anglican fudge," a seemingly unstable concoction that allows them to stay married despite significant differences. But Schori's election reminds us that homosexuality is not the first issue where the Episcopalians and other Communion liberals have moved boldly ahead — and more or less demanded that the conservatives deal with it.

First came the female priesthood in '77; then what was known as the "liturgical revolution" adapting a more inclusive and liberal version of the prayer book in 1979; and most recently Robinson's election. Each has been an honest expression of the American body's progressive spirit; but each has infuriated constituencies, many of them overlapping, in the broader Communion. Schori's ascendance in and of itself is probably not enough to cause a "schism." But it is a reminder that her church's differences with the Communion's global majority are not a one-shot deal, but rather a series of mutually reinforcing actions whose cumulative effect seems almost guaranteed to force some sort of eventual divorce.