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Episcopal leader hopes to mend rift

As a conservative diocese threatens to defect, she urges churchgoers to look past divisive issues.

November 19, 2007|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE — Anxiety crept into the priest's voice as he addressed the leader of his unsettled church.

Was she finding a way to bridge the widening rifts in the Episcopal Church and its parent Anglican Communion? he asked. Or was it an impasse?

Standing recently in the airy sanctuary of a small San Jose church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori was direct, her low voice calm, as she offered her own, more nuanced view to the priests and lay leaders before her.

"I'm not sure it is a stalemate," she said. "I think this church and others may just be becoming clearer about who they are."

And she reminded her audience that small groups of believers had previously left both the Episcopal Church and the global Anglican fellowship, and both entities survived.

Perhaps, Jefferts Schori said, if all sides in the current debate over sexuality and Scripture could "hold their truths more lightly," they might yet find a way forward -- together.

"I believe we only know the fullness of God's truth at the end of time," she said. "And in the meantime, we have to be careful about being so sure that we understand it all."

The first woman to be elected presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Jefferts Schori, 53, is leading her flock at a pivotal, and for many in the church, profoundly uneasy, time.

The influential, liberal-leaning church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, is facing the possibility of a break with the worldwide Anglican Communion, the result of long-standing tensions over homosexuality and scriptural interpretation that crystallized with the American church's decision in 2003 to consecrate an openly gay bishop.

Now parishes and dioceses within the Episcopal church also are threatening to go their own way. Four congregations have voted to pull out of the Diocese of Los Angeles.

Next month, the Fresno-based San Joaquin Diocese could become the first in the country to take a final vote to sever its ties with the national church. At the center of the storm is Jefferts Schori, a Stanford University-trained former oceanographer and licensed pilot who became an Episcopal priest in 1994, when she was 40. Her election in June 2006 as the 26th presiding bishop of the 2.4-million-member church was hailed as a breakthrough, both for women and for full inclusion for gays and lesbians, which she supports.

In her first year, Jefferts Schori, a tall, slender woman with a thoughtful manner and resonant voice, has won praise from many for her efforts to hold the fractious Episcopal Church together and keep it -- at least so far -- within the 77-million-member Anglican Communion.

In October, leaders of Anglicans overseas responded largely positively to pledges from the Episcopal Church to "exercise restraint" in consecrating more gay bishops and to refrain from authorizing official blessings for same-sex couples. A response from the communion's top leaders, or primates, is expected soon.

On her recent visit to Northern California, Jefferts Schori repeatedly urged Episcopalians to look beyond the issues that divide them and focus on what she said should be the church's main mission, ministering to people in need. She also asked them to reach out to one another and be patient as the church passes through an arduous time.

In Saratoga, wearing the sunrise-hued vestments of her own investiture, she helped celebrate the consecration of California's first female Episcopal bishop, Mary Gray-Reeves, as head of the Diocese of El Camino Real, which stretches from Palo Alto to San Luis Obispo. And in San Jose, she held a relaxed question-and-answer session with diocesan leaders.

"She's clear-thinking, decisive and unafraid, absolutely unafraid," said the Rev. Ian Douglas, professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and a member of the Episcopal Church's executive council. "She is really the kind of person we need right now."

But some of Jefferts Schori's efforts, in particular her decisions to get tough with parishes and dioceses that are trying to leave the Episcopal Church -- and trying to take church buildings and other property with them -- have drawn criticism.

In a Nov. 12 letter, for instance, the Rt. Rev. Jack Iker, the conservative bishop of the Fort Worth Diocese in Texas, accused the presiding bishop of misusing her office and engaging in "aggressive, dictatorial posturing." Jefferts Schori had warned Iker in a letter earlier this month that he could face church discipline if he continued to back proposals that would lead his diocese away from the national church.

Nonetheless, on Saturday, representatives from Fort Worth approved constitutional amendments that are the first steps toward that departure. The diocese joined others in San Joaquin and Pittsburgh in granting the preliminary approval.

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