A fearless woman of firsts

Published May 1, 2011

Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is chief pastor to over 2.4 million faithful in 16 countries.
Photo:Kara Flannery / Episcopal News Service

Katharine Jefferts Schori, 26th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States and 15 other countries, is determined to build far-reaching relationships.

A woman of firsts, she was the first female oceanographer to join the crew of an expedition ship in the North Pacific back in the 1980s. In 2000, she was elected the first bishop of Nevada never to have served as the rector of a parish. In 2006, she became the first female presiding bishop of the Episcopal church in the U.S. and chief pastor to its 2.4 million members in 16 countries. In addition, she is the first female leader of any church in the worldwide Anglican Communion. In 2008, she became the first woman ever to preach a sermon in the venerable Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem.

The bishop is noted for her quick intellect, composure and sang-froid, traits that serve her well in an era when opposition to the investiture of women bishops runs high in some quarters. In May 2010, she pushed the envelope again, co-consecrating as suffragan bishop of Los Angeles Canon Mary Glasspool, a lesbian in a committed same-sex relationship. “She is a breath of fresh air for the Episcopal church and Anglicanism. She is exactly the kind of leader the church needs at this time in its history,” says the Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi, the American-born rector of St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont., and a former Episcopal priest and church growth consultant in the U.S. and Canada.

But the bishop is a tough interview. She does not care for biographical questions. Her answers are short, and her tone says, “Don’t go there.” Still, her past offers up irresistible glimpses into what the future might hold.

Born in Florida in 1954 to a scientific family (her father was a physicist, her mother a virologist), Jefferts Schori was raised as a Roman Catholic until the age of eight, at which time her parents joined the Episcopal church. And while, as a young girl, she felt a strong vocation for Christian ministry, there was no call to the ordained ministry. “That was not a possibility in any sphere that I knew about then,” she says.

Before her ordination as a priest in 1994, the bishop was a marine biologist and taught at the college level, having earned a doctorate in oceanography from Oregon State University in 1983. Her field was taxonomy, the branch of zoology that describes various species and their interrelationships. “I specialized in zoogeography, which tracks the distribution of species. I was studying cephalopods—squid and octopus-—in the North Pacific.” In the 1980s, the bishop, whom her husband, Richard, a retired mathematics professor, calls “fearless,” joined the crew of a scientific expedition as the only woman aboard. The captain gave her the cold shoulder at first, but she persevered in talking to him and “he soon got over it,” recalls Jefferts Schori, who stresses that she goes to great lengths to forge relationships with those who disagree with her.

Science and faith come together in her pastoral life; the analytic skills necessary for scientific excellence have influenced her approach to mission. “Science invites you to look at the world carefully and without prejudgment. It requires you to gather data objectively and to listen well and then alter your hypothesis based on the data,” she says. In other words, a scientist must not only look but also critically observe and understand complex connections. It’s tempting to speculate that her early study of biodiversity in the oceans has shaped her dedication to building relationships between Christian denominations and other religions.

During her years as an oceanographer, the bishop was approached several times by members of her congregation to consider becoming a priest. “It took me five years to say ‘yes,’ ” recalls Jefferts Schori, who was ordained by the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif., the premier Episcoplian seminary on the Pacific Rim.

“In seminary, she was very much as she is now: very intellectual and very committed to the mission of the church,” says the Rev. Mary White, rector of St. Andrew’s church in Albany, N.Y. Adds fellow seminarian the Rev. Ron Culmer, rector of St. Clare’s Church in Pleasanton, Calif., “She sparkled, she shone. Her insights were quick. She spoke fluent Spanish.” Her divinity colleagues never doubted she would scale the heights. “We knew she would go far. She is nothing short of brilliant,” says Culmer.

Somewhere along the way, Jefferts Schori found the time to become an instrument-certified pilot, as did her only daughter, Katharine, a captain in the U.S. air force.

During her tenure as bishop of Nevada, Jefferts Schori displayed the same commitment to inclusiveness as she does as primate. Her leadership was never top-down but rather characterized as “collaborative,” “inclusive” and “a servant leadership that invites all to bring their gifts to the mission of the church.” For all that, she remains an exceptionally strong leader, stronger than any male counterpart Nicolosi can recall. “She is not intimidated by threats of litigation or schism,” he says. “She took very decisive action against the dioceses of Pittsburgh, San Joaquin and Fort Worth when they wanted to leave the church.”

With more than four years to go before her primacy ends in 2015, the bishop has several things at the top of her agenda. Though a woman of few words on the topic of her personal life, she waxes eloquent when speaking about her ministry, whose cornerstone is outreach. “We are called also to serve those who are not members of our institution. Our focus must be outward, and our focus inward only insofar as it supports that mission in the larger world.”

As a champion of inclusiveness, she adds that “increasingly, we must see ourselves as a multinational, multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic church in a relationship with other bodies such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Moravian Church, northern and southern provinces, the Anglican Church of Canada and other churches in the world Anglican Communion.”

In this day of diminishing congregations, what does she say to churches dismayed at the departure of parishioners? The key is to reach out to the young. “When we fail to communicate that the youngest members of a congregation are just as much members as senior citizens and we don’t encourage their participation in the ministry within the church and beyond, I don’t know many people who’d be interested in staying.”

A congregation must encourage its very youngest members to participate in mission as soon as they are baptized, both within and beyond their own church. “When that happens, people find that a congregation is a supporting and nurturing community in which to foster their growth as Christians,” she says. “We can’t expect people to come to us unbidden; those days are long past.”
Calling this year’s meeting of primates in Dublin “very productive,” Jefferts Schori also praised the scheduled spring co-celebrations of several Christian denominations to mark 10 years of full-communion relationships. “This is an example of what is possible when people of varying traditions come together as partners in God’s mission,” she says.

For Ron Culmer, Jefferts Schori “is a prophetic and courageous voice; her ministry has always been about complete inclusivity.” And her primacy may have important implications for gender equality. “If a woman can be primate of the Episcopal church, then a woman can be anything in the church,” says Nicolosi. “No position is off limits to her, and that is extremely hopeful for the future—for all of us, male and female.” Ω


  • Diana Swift

    Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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