By Anne Fletcher

Katharine Jefferts Schori, smack dab in the middle of the Anglican Communion’s wrangle over homosexuality, is taking the long, calm view.

Archbishop Katharine Jefferts Schori
(Photo Courtesy Episcopal Life)

In an interview in Vancouver, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America unflinchingly predicts the high decibel back-and-forth currently pre occupying the top level of international church may well go on for another decade or more.

“I think the best outcome would be to ratchet down the level of conflict several notches,” Jefferts Schori said.  “We have some very anxious people who need to have this resolved structurally right now.”

Those anxious people, personified by the 38 Anglican primates, have given ECUSA a September 30 deadline to cease-and-desist from same-sex blessings and the consecration of gay bishops.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, will arrive just days before that for the regular fall meeting of ECUSA’s bishops.

“I hope that he can hear and believe the church is far less divided than he believes it is,” said Jefferts Schori.

The Most Rev. Jefferts Schori was Vancouver for the annual meeting May 18 to 20 of the Anglican Indigenous Network (AIN), which includes peoples from Canada’s First Nations, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australian and Torres Strait Islanders, Native Hawaiians, and Native Americans (U.S.).

The bishop acknowledged the conservatives in her church - those people jarred by 35 years of constant change from the ordination of women through the inclusion of children to revisions in the prayer book - are fuelling the outrage of some outspoken African bishops over the open acceptance of gays and lesbians.

However, Jefferts Schori, who calculates the disgruntled at one half of one per cent of her 2.4 million-member church, calculates the international disgruntlement at a similar level.

“It’s not the whole communion,” she said.  “It’s a few people.”  At the February primates’ meeting in Dar-Es-Salaam, “there was a handful of primates who were really upset about sexuality issues,” she said, while the bulk of the archbishops were annoyed at seeing their pressing concerns of poverty pushed aside.

And even in places such as Nigeria, where one voice, that of the very vocal Archbishop Peter Akinola, speaks for the church, “there is a diversity of understanding,” Jefferts Schori said.

Asked if her position as the first female primate adds fuel to the fire, Jefferts Schori acknowledged female leadership runs out of step with the culture in some places in the Anglican Communion.

But, she added, with a strong glint of humour, “they treated my predecessor (Bishop Frank Griswold) the same way they treated me.”

And, since 14 primates refused to take part in a Eucharist with Bishop Griswold at a previous primates’ meeting, while only seven refused to participate with her in Dar-Es-Salaam, she figures progress is being made.

At 53, Jefferts Schori came to the priesthood only 13 years ago, after using her PhD in oceanography to look at the evolutionary relationship between squid and octopi at her lab in Oregon.

Bishop Michael Ingham with Archbishop Katharine Jefferts Schori during meetings of the Anglican Indigenous Council in Vancouver. (Ginger Shaw photo)

Federal research funding cuts halted that work in the mid-80s, forcing her to pay attention to other possibilities.  After half a dozen years as assistant priest in an Oregon parish, she was elected bishop of Nevada, using her pilot’s license to get around herself around the widespread diocese.

Her election to ECUSA’s top job in June, 2006 started her on what she has described as “a grand adventure.”

Her one daughter is an Air Force pilot, and her husband, a retired theoretical mathematician, now joins her on her travels but has resisted the move to New York City, the headquarters for her nine-year term as presiding bishop.

She asked the AIN delegates to be patient with the strain as both the Anglican Communion and native people look into the future.

“I read Genesis and I see chaos as a necessary precursor to creation,” she said.  “Anglicans embrace order and freedom.  Both parts are essential.  It’s a case of having patience to live with organic messiness to see what emerges.”

But she assured her audience that the work of the church goes on underneath the radar focused on the primates.  A March meeting in Boxbourg, South Africa brought together 400 people from 33 Anglican provinces.  “Nobody talked about sex,” she said. “They talked abut feeding people, about preventing disease, about how we can build constructive relationships.”

While she listened more than she talked to the AIN delegates, Jefferts Schori did suggest that true reconciliation with natives lies far ahead for the United States.  “In some way, Canada has had a gift in wrestling with residential schools which the United States hasn’t done publicly,” she said.

For indigenous people, who feel themselves to be a powerless minority often quarreling among themselves, Jefferts Schori recalled members of the Latino community in California letting down their barriers to each other and uniting for the first time, only to discover they were then a large force in the church.

“Together, all the marginalized can change things,” she said.  “The secret is those in power are relatively few.”

And to the plea for native priests ordained in and for their own communities, she said, simply: “Continue to challenge your church.”

© Anne Fletcher