Grace Under Pressure
When Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori broke a 500-year gender barrier, many applauded. Those who didn’t represent her biggest challenge.
By Diane Rogers
Photography by Matthew Cavanaugh/EPA/Corbis
While 3,200 of the faithful waited in the sanctuary of Washington National Cathedral, hundreds of thousands more tuned in to the pageantry via webcasts and satellite downlinks. After all, a new presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church is invested only once every nine years—and for the first time in the worldwide Anglican Communion’s history, a woman was about to assume leadership of one of its 38 independent, autonomous provinces.
Two Oglala Lakota-Paiute Indians circled the altar, drumming and blessing it with eagle feathers, and a bearer carrying white, gold and silver jubilation streamers then led a procession of bishops and priests through the nave. They all turned to face the west entrance of the cathedral, where the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori was about to make history on November 4. Standing on the steps outside, in a sunrise-design robe and miter, she hoisted her crozier and smote the door three times, asking for admission.
A half-hour later, after the giving of symbols of ministry and the singing of hymns of praise, the assembly was invited to greet its 26th presiding bishop. The applause and alleluias took on biblical proportions, filling the Gothic edifice from its brilliant blue rose window to the sparkling stained glass Space Window.
Now rewind to a smaller church out west, some 30 years ago. A young biology major is sitting in a back pew in MemChu late at night, trying to sort things out. Should she become a doctor? An oceanographer? Or what?
“I was really wrestling with the science and religion thing,” says Jefferts Schori, ’74. Born to Roman Catholic parents who became Episcopalians when she was 8, she would sometimes accompany a friend to “Uni Lu” (University Lutheran Church) and play the harp for services there, but she wasn’t affiliated with any denomination. “I was still at a pretty youthful faith-development stage, and there was all this great stuff I was learning in science. There was a disconnect, and I knew MemChu was a place where people wrestled, so I would go there in the middle of the night. I’d just sit.”
As the 52-year-old presiding bishop takes up her primatial staff and steps into her new role as chief pastor and chief operating officer of the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church, the two largest American religious groups—Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists—still do not ordain women. During her nine-year term overseeing congregations in 16 countries and 110 U.S. dioceses, Jefferts Schori will be one of the most visible women in Christianity, articulating her church’s vision and support of social justice.
Jefferts Schori’s election “is very significant in what it says about the commitment and direction of the Episcopal Church,” says Harvard’s Ann D. Braude. The director of the women’s studies in religion program at Harvard Divinity School and author of Women and American Religion notes that 2006 was the 30th-anniversary year of the regular ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. “If you’re going to make a statement, she’s a great choice because she’s brilliant, she can rise to the occasion, and she’s incredibly brave. I think she will do an outstanding job in trying to mollify tensions with other Anglican churches.”
Those tensions revolve around two issues. First, there’s Jefferts Schori’s gender: only 14 Anglican provinces ordain women as priests, and only three—the United States, Canada and New Zealand—ordain them as bishops. The second, overriding issue is the presiding bishop’s support of gay clergy and same-sex unions.
“We were stunned,” the Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council, says about Jefferts Schori’s election in June by the House of Bishops, on its fifth ballot. He adds that the 330 parishes and 80,000 “orthodox” church members affiliated with his council look at the trajectory of the church under her leadership and see nothing but hazards ahead. Jefferts Schori’s aim, he predicts, is to “normalize homosexual relationships within the Episcopal Church, both for laity as well as for those who are ordained, and to make additional and increasing provision for blessings of same-sex unions.”
When Jefferts Schori responds to such criticism, one can hear both a pastor and a scientist. “There are some people for whom the changes in the church over the last several decades have been incredibly painful, and, yes, some of them are very angry and very vocal because they see the church as having changed out from underneath them,” she says. “In large part, they’re correct—we’ve got some challenging times ahead of us. But every age has got its challenge, and this is ours.”
Then the researcher weighs in. “It’s taken wrestling for me, over the last 20 years, but I think I’m at a point where I understand sexual orientation to be fixed pretty early on. And in faith terms, I talk about it as part of creation—it’s the way people are created, which means the church’s role is to figure out how to help people live in holy relationships.”
At the 2003 triennial convention of the Episcopal Church, Jefferts Schori joined the majority of American bishops to support the election of an openly gay priest for bishop of New Hampshire. “I think I recognized how challenging the decision to consent to Gene Robinson’s election was going to be, but I look at it as one in a series of tackling the human tendency to define some people as ‘other,’” she continues. “Look at the early church’s history. It was, ‘Can we include Gentiles?’ And in our own country’s history, it’s been about the place of African-Americans, the place of immigrants and the place of women. Now we’re dealing with the place of gay and lesbian Christians in the church, and there will be another group. I don’t know who, but there will be another one.”
Dr. Rowan Williams, who as archbishop of Canterbury is religious head of the Church of England and the 78 million-member Anglican Communion, noted that Jefferts Schori brings “many intellectual and pastoral gifts” to her new job, adding, “she has my prayers and good wishes as she takes up a deeply demanding position at a critical time.” Within months of her election at the 75th General Convention, six of the 110 dioceses in the United States had rejected her authority and appealed to Williams to appoint a foreign presiding bishop to oversee them. “That’s not a big percent,” Harvard’s Braude notes. “We’re not seeing a massive exit.” Still, some observers say the extent of the mini-rebellion will be tested in February when Jefferts Schori travels to Tanzania as the first woman primate to sit at the table with her male peers.
Like hundreds of other women who wore pink “It’s a Girl” buttons to conference events after Jefferts Schori’s election, the Rev. Susan Russell, of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., recalls a time when “girls couldn’t be acolytes, much less priests.” The president of Integrity, a national Episcopal gay organization, Russell says she also couldn’t have imagined “a time when we would have elected, with such overwhelming enthusiasm, a woman as our presiding bishop.” As Russell looks at the primates’ meeting, she suggests that Jefferts Schori “has her work cut out for her, in incarnating into the hallowed halls of the primates’ meeting a different way of being the church. There’s already some talk that if she shows up, [the other primates] won’t all show up. It’s bishops behaving badly.”
The new presiding bishop, for her part, is looking forward to the gathering. She recalls a similar, potentially explosive meeting she had with American bishops last fall. “There were about a dozen, and several were very unhappy folks,” Jefferts Schori says. “We heard a lot of anger and grief from them, and it was actually the longest conversation I’d ever had with one of them. He hadn’t been willing to really engage me before, but in that context he was, and the ability to listen begins to build some low level of trust.”
Jefferts Schori emphasizes the word “low” in a voice that is deep and resonant, an instrument designed for the pulpit. But she is innately shy, and carries the memory of the first time she had to give a seminar presentation in graduate school, when she stayed awake the night before, worrying about it. “I think there is some incredible sense of divine humor in calling somebody who is that much of an introvert to do the kind of work I’m doing.”
She is eager to get on with that work, which means focusing on the Episcopal Church’s commitment to the eight Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations, including eradicating extreme poverty, halving hunger and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, providing universal primary education and ensuring environmental sustainability. “About 40 years ago, some economists got together and said, ‘What would it take to solve abject poverty?’ And they began to do some calculations and said, ‘Well, if the developed nations of the world gave seven-tenths of one percent of their annual incomes, we could do it in a finite length of time.’ If we work on this, it’s possible to achieve these goals by the year 2015. It’s a huge bill, but it’s doable. For the first time in human history, it’s possible to end the worst kind of poverty.”
Jefferts Schori is animated as she talks about possibilities. She’s sitting in a comfortable wingback chair in the foyer of St. Timothy’s, a small rural church near Las Vegas, where she’s paying a final visit two weeks before her investiture. Surrounded by the Nevada desert, St. Timothy’s faces the jagged River Mountains, and two blocks away the Emerald Island Casino and Rainbow Club Casino lure Sunday-morning gamblers—hardly the profile of a politically progressive community. But Jefferts Schori argues that the congregation is a good example of how healing can happen.
“There are people here who come from the very conservative end of things, and there are also gay couples,” she says. “And it’s mostly a matter of not saying, ‘My way is the only right way,’ or, ‘My understanding is the only correct one,’ but of being willing to be in dialogue and say, ‘We’ve got something to learn from people who disagree with us.’” She pauses, searching for a footnote. “It’s toughest and almost impossible to deal with people who don’t want to have any conversation.”
During the more than five years Jefferts Schori served Nevada as its bishop, she was known for straight talk and for rarely standing on ceremony. “Bishop Katharine,” as Nevadans like to call her, finds inspiration in the “active body prayer” that is her daily jog. An instrument-rated pilot who grew up flying with both her mother and her father, she calls being in the air “intense, focused—physically and mentally—and a joy!” She often piloted her Cessna 172 to remote Nevada parishes, accompanied by her husband, Dick Schori, a retired professor of mathematics from Oregon State University and a specialist in infinite-dimensional topology. “I only vaguely, vaguely understand what he does,” the bishop acknowledges. “It has to do with shapes.”
The Schoris met at a church social in Corvallis, Ore., and were married in 1979. Their only child, Kate, was born two years later, and she has carried on the matrilineal tradition with her recent promotion to first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. “She’s a fourth-generation pilot,” her mom says with tangible pride. “She’s been flying bigwigs around in C-21 Learjets, and now she’s flying AWACs, the radar and air control planes.”
Jefferts Schori was an aspiring scientist for as long as she can remember. She had built her first crystal radio set and learned to work in a darkroom by the time she was 6, and by age 8 she knew she wanted to do something in either marine sciences or medicine. But her experience in the premed program at Stanford was not what she’d anticipated. “There were lots of people stealing stuff out of the library that was assigned reading, and it was beyond competitive—it was vile, just nasty.”
Salvation arrived in the biology classes that were offered in Davenport, on the coast, where Jefferts Schori did work on a National Science Foundation grant, conducting a baseline study of the ecology in intertidal and subtidal areas. “Most of it was diving work, counting all the stuff in a grid. I took scuba diving my freshman year, and got to work as a TA for the marine ecology classes. It was a blast.” The bishop also remembers seminal courses she took one spring at Hopkins Marine Station. Instructors Isabella Aiona Abbott and Donald Putnam Abbott “were major influences,” she says. “She was the phycologist, the marine algae person, and he was the marine invertebrate zoologist, and they really turned me on to the incredible diversity of stuff under the sea.”
Jefferts Schori spent the summer after graduation at SRI, studying core samples from San Francisco Bay and becoming “reasonably proficient in polychaetes, worms and stuff like that, that live in mud.” Oregon State University offered her an assistantship, and she traveled up the north coast to work on pycnogonids, squid and octopuses. She earned a master’s and a doctorate in oceanography, and “research, research, research” was her only interest. “I had no vision of being a teacher.”
Jefferts Schori had drifted from religion at Stanford, but in graduate school gradually returned to the fold at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Corvallis. In Research Perspectives, a course about the philosophy and history of science, she began to read some of the great physicists of the 20th century, including Heisenberg, Bohr and Einstein. “Here were these guys talking about mystery, and for me it was really an invitation back” into questions of faith. When a close friend and fellow pilot was killed in a plane crash, it was her first encounter with the senselessness of death. “And I had some understanding that faith communities were places to wrestle with such questions.”
After preparing for a career in marine biology and working for the National Marine Fisheries Service as chief scientist on oceanographic cruises, Jefferts Schori saw federal funding for research dry up in the mid-1980s. “And at the very same time, three people in the congregation asked me if I’d ever thought about being a priest.” She considered that question as she started a chapter of Habitat for Humanity, worked as treasurer for a philanthropic group and headed the parent-teacher organization at her daughter’s school. Then, one weekend when the clergy at “Good Sam” had to attend a convention, Jefferts Schori was asked to fill in.
“So it took five years, but some of us are slow learners,” she says of her decision to enter the priesthood. She remembers, down to Bible book and chapter (1 Samuel 3), the first sermon she preached in 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War. “That experience of preparing, and the reflection I heard afterward, finally let me say, ‘Yes, it does make some sense.’”
Friends from the Corvallis church also have a clear recall of that sermon, and of many others she preached. “The ones I best remember were the ones that challenged me to be aware of those people who are on the margins,” says the Rev. Margaret Bernhard, deacon of Good Sam. “Katharine is a very private person, but a person of incredibly deep faith, and there was a pervasiveness of wanting people to experience a relationship with God.” Says fellow parishioner Bruce Black, who often accompanied Jefferts Schori and her family on birding trips in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains, “You could believe everything she said. And she speaks with humility—she’s not one of those pompous people.”
Jefferts Schori long ago resolved “the science and religion thing” that challenged her as a young biology major, and today she argues that they are not fundamentally opposed. “They’re both about knowing, they’re both about understanding,” she told Today co-host Meredith Vieira on November 3. “Science asks about what’s out there, and ‘How does it work?’ Religion and faith traditions ask questions of meaning—‘Why are we here, and how do we live a good life?’ They’re complementary in the best sense.”
Jefferts Schori commuted between Corvallis, where she taught religious studies courses as an assistant visiting professor at OSU, and Berkeley’s Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where she earned a master’s in divinity. She was ordained in 1994 and returned to Good Sam as assistant rector, drawing on her fluency in Spanish to launch the church’s first-ever Hispanic ministry. Five years into her work in Corvallis, she decided to take a driving trip through several Western dioceses to interview members in other parishes and learn how they were conducting their ministries.
“As I was leaving Sparks [Nev.], a priest said, ‘What you’ve done here is a lot like what a bishop does when he visits. Can I put your name in?’”
“And I said, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. That’s absurd. I’m a woman, I’m too young, I haven’t been rector of a big, fancy city parish. Yeah, right.’”
The Rev. Canon Britt Olson, who was rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Sparks, was one of the clergy who pressed her to consider the position. “She has the scientist’s gift for observation and collecting data, along with the humanistic perspective of relationships, and the combination is just really tremendous,” says Olson, now assistant to the bishop of Northern California. “In our nation and in our world and in the church today there are so many deep conflicts, and the thing that stood out to those of us who talked with her is that she’s not afraid of conflict. As a scientist, she believes that the organism only gets healthy when it deals with challenge—so she doesn’t run from it or react to it, but stands her ground.”
Like many women who have made career choices to accommodate family needs, says Olson, Jefferts Schori was “not in the normal path” to become a bishop. But Olson adds that her “incredible thoughtfulness” drew those who met with her. “She listens so carefully and she asks the most pointed questions, and she’s present to whomever she is talking with at the time. She’s never looking beyond you.”
Jefferts Schori continued on her trip, pondering the conversations she’d had with Olson and others, and ultimately agreed to be considered for the bishop’s office. “The thinking and praying I was doing over those miles made me recognize that at the very least I had to say ‘yes’ to the process.” In 2001, Jefferts Schori was ordained to the episcopate, as bishop of Nevada.
The Rev. Michael Annis, MS ’74, associate priest at St. Timothy’s, looks at Jefferts Schori’s term in Nevada and reflects on the challenges she faced five years ago—challenges not unlike those that now threaten to divide the Anglican faith. “This is one of the most conservative parishes in the diocese, and we had a strong contingent that wanted us to [leave the Episcopal church and] become part of the Anglican Church,” he says. “But she has brought a kind of healing. She pulls people together rather than forcing agreement, and she does that without demeaning people who differ with her.” Father Mike hesitates. “And she’s very smart.”
As an oceanographer, Jefferts Schori studied interconnected systems—the chemistry and circulation of water, the atmosphere above and the geology below the sea. As a backpacker, she is a keen observer of nature’s beauty, and on trips along Nevada’s Ruby Crest Trail with her husband she has written about paintbrush and purple monkshood, meadowlarks and flickers: “Absolutely glorious!”
But Jefferts Schori would distinguish her appreciation of the planet’s natural glories from the views of those who believe in creationism or intelligent design. “That’s too limited an understanding of the divine,” she says. “It assumes we can comprehend what the designer is about. It assumes a fixity to the divine, that creation isn’t ongoing.”
So, how does the presiding bishop think of the divine? “The words I use are ‘that which is drawing life into existence,’ and ‘the energy behind creation.’” She stops. “It’s hard to put into words. Theologians would say it’s ineffable.”
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