Pioneering Episcopal Leader Faces Challenges

As the first woman to head the Episcopal Church, Bishop Kathryn Jefferts Schori inherits a crisis. Dozens of congregations are trying to sever ties to the main church over issues of liberalism, including gay rights.

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This weekend, the U.S. Episcopal Church officially welcomed its first female leader at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. Kathryn Jefferts Schori is the first woman presiding bishop, not just in the United States, but in all of the other thousands of diocese in the global Anglican church. Schori assumes her post as the church faces divisive debates over homosexuality and biblical interpretation. NPR's Rachel Martin has the story.

RACHEL MARTIN: First the Latin band from Texas warmed up the crowd.

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MARTIN: Then Native American drummers led a procession of white-robed bishops through the national cathedral.

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MARTIN: Which cross stated into ethereal hymns from the choir.

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MARTIN: It was a fitting introduction for the new presiding bishop, who says broadening the church's diversity is one of her primary goals. Dressed in a high bishop's hat and rainbow-colored vestments Kathryn Jefferts Schori entered the cathedral, and the outgoing presiding bishop, Frank Griswold, greeted her.

Bishop FRANK GRISWOLD (Episcopal Church): Kathryn, do you now, here in the presence of God and the church gathered for worship, commit yourself to this new trust and responsibility?

Bishop KATHRYN JEFFERTS SCHORI (Episcopal Church): I do. And I promise with God's help to be a faithful shepherd and pastor among you.

Bishop GRISWOLD: Dear friends in Christ, will you who witness this new beginning do all in your power to support and uphold Kathryn in this ministry?

Unidentified People: We will.

RACHEL MARTIN: Jefferts Schori is a mother, a trained oceanographer and a licensed pilot. She's also a vocal advocate of gay rights, and she supported the 2003 election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as the bishop of New Hampshire. And while she enjoys broad support throughout the American Episcopal Church, that decision has marginalized a small but vocal minority of conservative Episcopalians.

Bishop ROBERT DUNCAN (Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh): I have this sense and this grief that somehow our church has been, you know, taken away from us.

MARTIN: Robert Duncan is a life-long Episcopalian and the bishop of the diocese of Pittsburgh, one of the seven diocese that has made moves to split from the mainstream church. He says over the past few years, the church has come to rely less on the scripture as the source of authority and more on cultural norms that endorse homosexuality and allow for more liberal interpretations of the Bible.

Bishop DUNCAN: That's a different understanding, that's a different church. There's no way for these two understandings to stay side by side. The best thing would be for us to let one another go. It's not about judgments made on people who are struggling with issues in their lives, but rather about presenting a truth that sets people free.

Bishop SCHORI: What is truth, what is truth?

MARTIN: It's the question of all questions, but at its core, Bishop Jefferts Schori says that's really what this debate is about, and she says the truth of the Episcopal Church is not something set in stone.

Bishop SCHORI: We're meant to keep on learning and growing and not stay fixed in stock in one particular understanding. To leave aside the discoveries of recent science is to ignore part of our God-given gift. To insist that we can only read the Bible in one particular way is to ignore the multitude of ways in which God speaks to us.

MARTIN: Dozens of congregations have already dissolved and re-formed outside the Episcopal Church. Meanwhile, seven diocese across the country have rejected Schori's leadership and have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury for alternative oversight. During an interview at church headquarter in New York last week, Bishop Schori said she's hoping to find a compromise that'll keep these congregations in the fold. But she admits that may not happen.

Could you foresee on the point on the path where you say, if you don't want to be an Episcopalian the way we are Episcopalians, then you should be something different?

Bishop SCHORI: I think that's a possible response. I don't think the bulk of this church is ready to go there yet. If such a thing were to happen, my stance would be that the door has to be left wide open and the light on.

MARTIN: Although the controversy within the Episcopal Church over homosexuality is divisive, religious experts say the church has a long history with these kinds of debates, and Schori says they're a necessary part of the church's growth. Thirty years ago, she points out, the issue was whether women could have leadership roles in the church. That debate was settled yesterday, at the National Cathedral.

Bishop SCHORI: My sisters and brothers, may God renew in us today the grace to follow where the spirit leads us, reaching forth our hands in love and reconciling the world to Christ.

CONGREGATION: Amen.

Bishop GRISWOLD: Brothers and sisters in Christ, greet the 26th presiding Bishop.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Rachel Martin, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of choral music)

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