Leading an Embattled Church?

by John Saxbee

from Signs of the Times, No. 24 - Jan 2007

This was the Washington Post headline on the day Katharine Jefferts Schori was Installed as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA. She is effectively the first woman Archbishop in the Anglican Communion, and will take her place at Primates' meetings as well as leading ECUSA through some pretty challenging times.

It was an enormous privilege for me to represent the Archbishop of Canterbury at both the Investiture Service and the Installation Service the following day. These were extraordinary occasions - full of colour, movement, emotion and an astonishing repertoire of music reflecting the rich ethnic diversity characterising American Anglicanism. The decibel count was way above what most of us are used to in our more sedate English ceremonies, with regular rounds of applause and much whooping and cheering.

There was a profound sense of being in on something truly historic, and over the two days Bishop Katharine grew into the role in quite a remarkable way. Somewhat nervous and non-plussed at the outset, she responded wonderfully to the warmth of the welcome and by the end of it all she was exuding self-assurance and not a little prophetic zeal. She preached two fine sermons which majored on "shalom" as the keynote word for her term in office. Yet the peace she pursues is infused with the fire of God's Spirit bringing light to the dark places and hope to those on the margins.

She is an oceanographer who graduated from Stanford University and earned a doctorate at Oregon State, working at sea with boat captains more accustomed to all-male research crews. A pilot with more than 500 hours logged, she flew her plane to visit parishes in the sprawling Nevada Diocese. She also rock climbs with her husband of more than 25 years, Richard Schori, a theoretical mathematician and retired university professor. They have one daughter and she is an RAF pilot.

The Introit at the Investiture Service was John Tavener's setting of words from the Liturgy of Saint Basil: "In you, O Woman full of grace, all creation rejoices" - a hymn to Mary, but the sheer appropriateness of this text was not lost on the congregation so full of anticipation and bursting to celebrate and salute their new Presiding Bishop at every opportunity.

It was my privilege to read a message from Archbishop Rowan conveying his prayers and best wishes as Katharine takes on this responsibility "in the most challenging of times". He assured her of "the good will and prayers of very many in the USA and around the world as she strives to lead faithfully, honestly and collaboratively". This was received with generous and prolonged applause.

The new Presiding Bishop will not seek to disguise her liberal theological understanding in relation to gay rights, social justice and the integrity of other faiths. But she recognises that compromise is necessary to heal the rift currently threatening the Anglican Communion so that, for example, she defends the moratorium on ordaining openly gay bishops, and sanctioning same-sex blessings. How sustainable this stance will be over time remains to be seen, but she clearly has a rapport with the church she leads, and she has the potential to bring healing and hope where there is little of either.

On the morning of the Investiture I awoke to a wonderful sun rise on a very cold day. Katharine Jefferts Schori seemed to me like a warm sun rising in a cold climate, and if her Church is indeed embattled it showed few scars as Episcopalians offered praise and prayers to God who makes all things new.

John Saxbee is the Bishop of Lincoln and MCU President.