A GENERATION from now, maybe the question will be "What's it
like to be a male bishop?" Or, better still, there won't be a
question of that sort at all.
Certainly, that's how Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori would like
it. Even now, it feels awkward asking her about being a woman. If
this were almost any institution, I couldn't get away with it.
But this is the Church, and it is the eve of the General Synod's
decision on new legislation to allow women bishops in the Church of
In 2006, Dr Jefferts Schori was elected Presiding Bishop of the
Episcopal Church in the United States, the first ever woman Primate
of the Anglican Communion. Eight years on, she is still the only
Gender is really not an issue, she said in a phone conversation
a fortnight ago, just before travelling to the UK to preach at the
annual pilgrimage in St Albans. "It's been a very minor theme. When
I was first elected, there was profound objection from a couple of
bishops who did not think that women should be ordained. We've long
ago gotten past that: they decided they didn't want to be part of
the Episcopal Church.
"My gender is really beside the point. I think it was more
significant for the Episcopal Church that I was the first
scientifically trained Presiding Bishop, and the first Presiding
Bishop who was elected from the Western part of the US; and I'm
probably the first one who was elected not having spent one's whole
adult life in the Church as a primary vocation."
KATHARINE JEFFERTS was brought up as a Roman Catholic until she
was eight. Her first encounter with a woman priest was at graduate
school, when she was studying oceanography. "I began attending
church regularly, and there was a deaconess who'd been in the
diocese of Oregon for some time. She was the first woman ordained
there, and she was ordained in the parish I attended."
It was only some years later, after a scientific career and
marriage to Richard Schori, a mathematician, that she considered
ordination - in answer, she says, to the urging of others.
She did her first year of theological training at a Roman
Catholic Benedictine seminary. "A number of the fellows there
thought I was from Mars [Venus, surely?], but there were several
who were very supportive, and several in the faculty of the monks
were supportive. It's always been a mix." She became Presiding
Bishop after five years as Bishop of Nevada.
Speaking in the run-up to the General Synod vote, she
commiserates with women priests in the Church of England.
"It's been an exceedingly difficult and long road. There is
really no theological justification for dividing access to
ordination as a priest and ordination as a bishop. It was very
unfortunate that the Church of England took that decision to divide
them early on."
She recalls a visit to Salisbury, where she met a group of
parishioners. "After an afternoon's conversation, one of the men
said to me: 'I can't imagine taking orders from a woman bishop.' I
pointed out to him that that was not the primary role of a bishop,
and, at the same time, the head of his Church has been a woman for
a very long time."
In her experience, there remains a "cultural aversion, deeper
than rationality", that has blocked women from the priesthood, and
continues to hinder their appointment to senior posts. "There's a
maxim that people may not agree with the idea of a woman priest, or
of this kind of a priest, or of that kind of a bishop - but when
they need one, and experience the ministry of a person in that
role, they usually get past that."
She acknowledges that there is still ground to make up in the
United States. "There is canonical equality," she says, "but not
equal access. The number of senior women - bishops, deans - does
not represent the presence of women as priests."
She thinks that the UK might eventually move faster than the
Episcopal Church in the US, since priests and senior clergy are
appointed to posts, not elected, as in the US. "I think you're more
fortunate in the UK, in that you don't elect your bishops."
SINCE her election as Presiding Bishop in 2006, unity between
the Anglican Primates has been strained. Whether any of this has
been on account of her sex cannot be judged. The chief issue has
been her Church's support for gay priests and, in particular, the
election of the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, a gay man with a partner, as
Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. Dr Jefferts Schori was among the
bishops who ratified the election.
So, although the conservative-liberal schism that led to the
formation of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) took place
on her watch, the forces that brought it about were already in
play. That did not prevent her becoming a focus of conservative
There followed the steamily disunited Primates' Meeting in Dar
es Salaam in 2007, and the slightly more temperate disunity over
the meeting in Dublin in 2011 - the meeting was calmer, largely
because the Global South Primates boycotted it in protest at Dr
Jefferts Schori's attendance.
She declines to be drawn on her relations with the other
Primates. Some were warm; others were "civil", she says. "I had
conversations with every Primate present at my first Primates'
Meeting in 2007. They were not all deep conversations, but most of
us will treat each other at least civilly, if not compassionately."
Disagreement clearly does not faze her, though her supporters have
been irritated over the years by what they see as vacillation
within the Anglican hierarchy in its attempts to placate the
"There is a long history of disagreement in the Episcopal
Church. At heart, it's about how people read scripture. Some people
argue for the primacy of scripture, and won't accept that there are
other sources of authority.
"It's a very old conflict, and we have always been forming minor
splinter groups. We will always find something else to disagree
about." She puts conflict into a grand narrative of increasing
"The Episcopal Church has a widening understanding of what it is
to be a human, an expanding anthropology, if you will. In the
1700s, a full member of the Church was a white man of majority who
owned land; then we considered whether those who did not own land
could be members. Next we wondered whether slaves could be members;
then we questioned the whole issue of slavery.
"After that, we began to ask whether women could be full
members. Then, here in the Episcopal Church, we've looked at the
standing of children, baptised but not confirmed. Then gay and
lesbian people, then disabled people. . . There will be other
groups coming. I don't know who they will be yet. It's a long
process of liberation."
She talks of her commitment to the Communion - she calls
Anglicans "people of unity, but not of uniformity" - despite the
damage, she says, the links have done to her Church's mission. "We
are seen as part of a Communion containing those who are hostile
to, and pass draconian laws against, gay and lesbian people, [and
this] has made it difficult for us in wider society. It's a
challenge to us."
Her nine-year term in office comes to an end at the General
Convention in Salt Lake City next year. She turned 60 in March this
year, and, in the coming months, has to decide whether to stand for
She gives the impression of enjoying the work more as she goes
on. "The challenges when I took office were about conflict within
the Episcopal Church. Most of that is really behind us, and that
has allowed me more time to do ecumenical and interfaith work, and
There remain the expensive property disputes with ACNA
congregations, and attendance figures overall continue to decline;
but she talks instead about the cultural challenges facing her
Church. "Our fastest-growing congregations are international ones,
the immigrant and ethnic ones within the US." The challenges are
great. "But I don't believe that life is meant to be boring."
Last week, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford
University. More significant, perhaps, given the coolness that
Canterbury has shown her in the past, was the message of
congratulation sent by Archbishop Welby: "This award, richly
deserved, reaffirms Bishop Katharine's remarkable gifts of
intellect and compassion, which she has dedicated to the service of
Christ. . . It must be noted, too, that Bishop Katharine's
achievements serve - and will continue to serve - as a powerful
model for women seeking to pursue their vocations in the