Reactions to first woman primate range from elation to disappointment

Published June 19, 2006

Reactions from Anglicans worldwide to the election of Nevada bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as the first female primate (national bishop) of the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) and of the entire Anglican Communion ranged from stunned, awed and elated to upset and disappointed. Coverage in the media have likewise reflected these varying shades of opinion, with some stating it presented “an exciting complication” for the Communion, and others saying it further undermines what is left of Anglican unity, already deeply torn by the election of an openly gay bishop in the United States in 2003. Some observers object not only to her gender but some have suggested she is also a “radical,” since she supported the ordination in 2003 of Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the Communion’s first openly gay bishop. “I have enormous respect for her and her competence, and this will change the dynamics among the boys’ club of primates in the Anglican Communion significantly,” Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, told Ecumenical News International (ENI) in an interview from Columbus, Ohio, where the General Convention is taking place. Archbishop Hutchison acknowledged that Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election could present some challenges in some parts of the 77-million member Anglican Communion “because some countries have gender-specific expectations.” He added: “Leadership in some traditional societies is very much in the hands of males and therefore presents a challenge.” Bishop Victoria Matthews of Edmonton, who was elected Canada’s first female bishop in 1994, described Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election as “fabulous.” She noted that Bishop Jefferts Schori leads a diocese in a state “which is the fastest growing part of the U.S. in terms of population growth.” Her election “shows again that the ordination of women, which for the Episcopal Church began 30 years ago, has been accepted not only in terms of all three orders (laity, clergy and bishops) but in terms of having a woman who is a bishop being chosen for the highest office in one of the provinces,” she said. Bishop Sue Moxley, the first female bishop in the diocese of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island and the third female bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada welcomed news of Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election saying, “She’s really thoughtful and she’s done some creative things in the diocese of Nevada.” It was inevitable, said Bishop Moxley, for some people in the Communion to view Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election as, “well, that’s just the Americans going against tradition again.” But, she added, “I think anybody who has met her will make an intelligent response. I mean she’s a person who has gifts as a bishop. If God has called her to be the primate, the presiding bishop, then that’s the way it is.” Bishop Moxley said it was not surprising that some have reacted to Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election because of her gender. “What else is new? If you’re the first person to do something as a woman there’s going to be some people who are going to take potshots,” she said. “The reality is in North America, in Australia, New Zealand and some other places, we’ve made decisions about women in leadership, whether it’s government or church, and women have supposedly equal status in society and culture and in other places of the world that simply isn’t the way it is.” People need to understand that “things are different in North America and we need to realize that and we can’t impose where we are on other people and at the same time they shouldn’t impose on us where they are either,” said Bishop Moxley. Bishop Matthews said that Anglicans need to recognize that the ordination of women “is something completely accepted and acceptable within the Anglican Communion. That’s not to say that every single province ordains women but over 10 years ago, over half of Anglican provinces were ordaining women. It is increasing and the church has been blessed richly by the decision at every level to do that.” Nonetheless, she added, “that’s not to say that there isn’t the freedom for people to hold out but they’re making that choice for themselves, they’re not making that choice for the Anglican Communion.” Fourteen out of 38 Anglican provinces have made provisions for women in the episcopate, according to the Episcopal News Service. American Episcopalians have 13 active and retired women bishops and bishops-elect, while Canadian Anglicans have one retired and two active women bishops. Asked whether Canadian Anglicans, whose General Synod will elect a new primate next year, are ready to have a woman primate as well, Bishop Moxley said: “Much more so than ECUSA. I hope when we get to this time next year that we’ll be looking at who’s the best person to lead the church, not whether it’s a man or a woman. I hope that we can do that sensibly and not get caught up in the sexuality politics.” Asked the same question, Bishop Matthews laughed and said, “I wouldn’t touch that question with a 10-foot pole.” Bishop Matthews was a candidate for the primatial election in 2004 but had to withdraw after she was diagnosed with breast cancer; she has since been in remission after undergoing surgery. Not everyone welcomed Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election. Two of her colleagues – Bishop Jack Iker of Forth Worth and Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh – issued statements that took issue with her gender as well as her support for Bishop Robinson. “Her election signals continuation of the policies of the outgoing presiding bishop, namely support for the ordination of practising homosexuals and the blessing of same-sex unions, practices which have divided the Episcopal Church, impaired our relationships with a majority of other provinces, and brought the Anglican Communion to the breaking point,” said Bishop Iker. “The fact that her ordination as a bishop is not recognized or accepted by a large portion of the Communion introduces an additional element of division and impairment.” (Within 24 hours of the election, Bishop Iker’s diocese appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury for alternative oversight.) Bishop Duncan said Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election puts some dioceses within the Episcopal Church who are opposed to the ordination of women “in an untenable situation.” He called her election “a stunning development,” but added that Bishop Robinson’s election remained “the decisive moment in contemporary Anglican history … the consequences of which continue to unfold.” Meanwhile, some Anglican leaders attending the General Convention as guests have spoken favourably about Bishop Jefferts Schori’s election, according to ENS. “This is a great year for women and we honour the role that women are playing in the world today,” Bishop Trevor Mwamba of Botswana told ENS. Canon Kenneth Kearon, secretary general of the Anglican Communion said he looked forward to welcoming Bishop Schori to future primates’ meetings. Asked by ENS about what impact her election could have on the Anglican Communion, Canon Kearon said that the role of women is one that is being addressed by each province. “Some of them express it by having women in the priesthood and in the episcopate. Other churches are looking at it and others have made firm decisions against it. That doesn’t alter the fact that women are important members of the Anglican Communion.” Bishop Martin Barahona of El Salvador, primate of the Anglican Church of Central America, said he was not surprised that a woman was elected as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church since their work has been strong. “In the Anglican Communion it will be a big challenge but women have the capacity to lead the church today,” he said. Bishop Carlos Touche-Porter, primate of Mexico, said he was “thrilled” at the choice. “We need to go back to the Anglican spirit of respectful diversity as a source of enrichment and not division.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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