Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of Nevada, who was elected Sunday as the first woman to lead the U.S. Episcopal Church, says it's time to put away the divisive issue of homosexuality and move on to the urgent mission of ministering to people in need.
"Our primary emphasis needs to be feeding people, educating children and looking for healthcare for everybody," Jefferts Schori, 52, said in a telephone interview Monday from Columbus, Ohio, where representatives of the 2.3-million-member denomination are holding their annual convention.
But even as Jefferts Schori called on the church to move past the issue of gay priests and same-sex marriage, her election has put a new strain on a church wrestling with its identity and mission in recent years.
An oceanographer who studied squids and octopuses in the northeastern Pacific Ocean before going into the ministry in 1994, Jefferts Schori is considered a progressive. She supported the consecration three years ago of V. Gene Robinson, who is openly gay, as bishop of New Hampshire. She also has endorsed same-sex union rites in Nevada.
Jefferts Schori succeeds the Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold on Nov. 1 and will be invested at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., three days later.
The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion of which the Episcopal Church is a part, said in a statement Monday that the presiding bishop-elect had his "prayers and good wishes as she takes up a deeply demanding position at a critical time."
But at the same time, he noted that "her election will undoubtedly have an impact on the collegial life of the Anglican Primates, and it also brings into focus some continuing issues in several of our ecumenical dialogues."
Primates are archbishops of national Anglican churches or provinces.
In the U.S., Jefferts Schori's elevation was criticized by conservatives but hailed by liberals.
Conservatives said her election is another example of the U.S. church's departure from Scripture and from other provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
"We feel sorrow for her, as she inherits the tragedy of a fractured church that has lost its sense of mission and lost touch with its grass roots," said the Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the Atlanta-based American Anglican Council. "What signal does this choice send to the faithful in the pew and to the Anglican Communion worldwide? The election of Presiding Bishop-elect Jefferts Schori only intensifies the current trajectory of the Episcopal Church."
He also noted that her election would present problems for those who do not recognize the ordination of female priests.
Three Episcopal dioceses, including San Joaquin in California, do not ordain women. Of the 38 provinces of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion, only three -- the United States, Canada and New Zealand -- have female bishops.
Jefferts Schori, a licensed pilot married to a mathematician, said that during her adult life she has worked in fields where men made up the senior leadership.
She recalled that the first time she became chief scientist on an oceanography project, the captain wouldn't speak to her.
On Monday, many church members hailed her election.
"Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is one of the most intelligent, dynamic and well-educated woman I have ever met," said the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.
"She has a heart of compassion, a spirit of grace and the way to deal with our issues by relationships," Bruno said from Columbus. Donn Morgan, president and dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, where Jefferts Schori received her master's degree in divinity in 1994, said he believes Jefferts Schori "can and will make a positive difference for the Episcopal Church ... as it addresses the many issues which presently divide it."
"I am proud of the church for electing Katharine to this important position," Morgan said in an e-mail. "Katharine is, on the one hand, a careful and rigorous thinker who doesn't accept easy and simplistic answers to difficult questions and issues. On the other hand, Katharine is an open and gracious colleague who sees and covets the value of cooperation and collaboration. All of her actions seem to be characterized by patience, tolerance and a very strong will or desire to move forward together."
Jefferts Schori describes her administrative style as "relational," though when necessary she can be confrontational.
Her journey as "a person of faith and a trained scientist, begun in some struggle over how to understand the two of them together," she said.
As she read the works of great scientists such as Albert Einstein, she realized that scientists also "delighted in the rich mysteriousness" of all creation.
Science and theology are both ways of looking at the wonder and mystery of God's work, she said. "Scientists look to understand it. Theologians and people of faith look to understand the meaning behind life. I don't see why there needs to be a conflict."
The bishop-elect said she is "awed and humbled by" the election and that she will be on her knees praying a lot.
In other denominational news, Southern Baptists elected a little-known South Carolina pastor to lead the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
The Rev. Frank Page, 53-year-old pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., was elected June 13 by the 11,000 delegates, or "messengers," during a two-day convention in Greensboro, N.C.
The nation's largest Presbyterian denomination, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), elected the Rev. Joan S. Gray of Atlanta as moderator of its 2.4 million members on June 15 during a meeting in Birmingham, Ala.